Imitation may well be the sincerest form of flattery, but the line definitely gets drawn at down-right naked theft.
Not theft as in, I’ll just stick this book in my pocket and walk out of the store. Theft as in, copying it and trying to pass it off as your own work. Theft as in, plagiarism.
The Laundrymen, my investigative adventure into the world of money laundering, was published around the world in the early-to-mid 1990s and has been revised several times since. Still in print in a number of c ountries, it also remains alive and well as an eBook.
In 1995, a Dutch edition of Laundrymen appeared under the title De Wit Wassers (“The White Washers”). A year or so later, my book unexpectedly showed up again in the Netherlands, this time called Fraude, but bearing the byline of a convicted Dutch con-man named Arie Olivier.
Journalists in Holland who received review copies broke the news with front-page stories that Fraude was just that — a fraud. The lazy schmuck Olivier had merely scanned the Dutch translation into his computer, changed my name for his and duplicated Laundrymen, word for word.
Although plagiarism happens with some regularity in academia, outright literary theft of this kind is less common. The Chinese are well known for openly stealing other people’s intellectual property — film, music, software — and for publishing books without paying for them. But that’s a straight-forward copyright issue. And while the Chinese government is famous for not doing much about it, as far I know, they have not yet stooped so low as to substitute organized copyright theft for organized plagiarism.
Like all authors, my name on my work and my copyrighted entitlement to own that work are all I have. Which is why, when I heard what Olivier did, I automatically reverted to my American litigious self. I rang a lawyer in Britain to ask if he knew how to say “Rottweiler” in Dutch. He translated that as Rutger Middendorf — a brilliant young and aggressive attorney in Haarlem.
I got him on the phone and, before introducing myself, asked, “Do you read the papers?”
He was a bit confused, but confessed he did.
I said, “Did you read the story today about Arie Olivier’s book?”
He said he had.
I then announced, “My name is Robinson.”
From his reaction I knew, immediately, that Andy Warhol was right. Here was my 15 minutes of fame. And trust me, it’s a great quarter-of-an-hour, even if it’s only in the Low Countries.
On my behalf, Rutger moved against Olivier and his publisher, Spectrum. He obtained an injunction against both, the book was removed from stores and orders for it were stopped. At the same time, Rutger filed a suit against Olivier and Spectrum claiming “plagiaat.”
It’s one of the few Dutch words I can actually pronounce.
After issuing a press release that Fraude was withdrawn from sale, the Dutch press wanted to know what else I might have in mind. My answer was, “I’m going to find Olivier’s pain threshold and drive a Sherman tank through it.”
Olivier was infamous in Holland for defrauding little old ladies out of their state pensions, and also for going on television to lie that he was, secretly, an advisor to the FBI and the CIA. True to form, he now shamelessly took the ensuing publicity as a compliment and glowed in his own self-generated publicity as a “meesteroplichter” (master-criminal). Whether his ego was out of control or he was just too stupid to lay low, he actually admitted on radio that yes, he’d helped himself to my book. But, he added, he was entitled to because there were no copyright symbols in De Wit Wassers.
In fact, there were two, one for the Dutch translation and one for the original text.
Next, on Dutch television, he said that I should be grateful he copied my book because with his picture on the cover, it would sell better.
The story remained on the front pages of the Dutch dailies for several days, and was a topic of conversation on television and radio talk shows. At one point, Rutger called me to say that the most popular Tv show in the country was taping later that week, had invited Olivier to appear and wanted me, as well.
I wondered, “How about if, when I meet him, I bust him in the mouth?”
My kids were horrified, my wife knew that I was crazy enough to do it and Rutger assured me he’d get me out on bail within a few hours. So my head now filled with slow-motion versions of “KO in Holland” leading every evening news program on the planet. From there, I imagined, it was only a short step to my own talk show.
With hindsight, it’s probably just as well that Rutger wouldn’t let me appear. I wasn’t in bad shape, but Olivier turned out to be four inches taller than me and in better shape. Obviously, a well-timed left uppercut would sell books and extend my 15 minutes of fame to at least half an hour. But if I got hit back, only the dentist would win.
We then learned that Olivier had just gotten married to a much younger woman and was supposed to be on his honeymoon. The trip got cancelled because of this and neither bride nor groom was pleased. It was, he kept telling the press, all my fault.
When we finally met for the first and only time, it was a few weeks later in Haarlem’s Courtroom G, a modern, light wood paneled, well lit room with seats for 60 or 70 spectators.
The media took up all of them.
Rutger, two other lawyers from his office and I walked in and took our place at the plaintiff’s desk.
The attorneys representing Olivier and Spectrum, took their place at table on the other side of the room.
Then Olivier made his entrance. In his mid-50s, impeccably dressed, with glasses tipped back onto his forehead and a huge gold Rolex on his left wrist, he glad-handed and smiled, exuded charm and poise, and tried to show how unconcerned he was with all of this.
All I could think of was that, any meesteroplichter worth his title should at least be able to come up with a better stunt than unadulterated plagiarism. On the other hand, by definition, master-criminals are the ones who never get caught.
Presiding over the trial was the President of the District Court, Madame Terwee, a handsome woman in her 40s, with short hair and a soft voice. She took her place at the bench, one step higher than the rest of us. There was no jury. The only other official was the judge’s clerk who sat not far from Her Honor.
All the lawyers, including the judge and her clerk wore back robes with a white bib. Because everything was in Dutch, and I wouldn’t understand a word of this, one of Rutger’s assistants sat with me and translated.
Rutger spoke first, spending an hour outlining our complaint and quoting Olivier’s many acknowledgments of plagiarism. He and one of his colleagues then read from Laundrymen and Fraude, simultaneously, as if they were singing from hymnals in church, to show the judge that the books were exactly the same, word for word, paragraph for paragraph, chapter for chapter.
Rutger closed by reading from a published interview which contained Olivier’s opinion of this case. “They can kiss my ass!”
Needless to say, Her Honor was not amused.
When it was Spectrum’s turn, a short, dark-haired man with a bulldog face got up and made two main points. First, he said, his client was very embarrassed about this because it was such obvious plagiarism. And second, he said, “This really doesn’t have anything to do with my client because it is Mr. Olivier’s fault.”
Next, Olivier’s attorney stood up. An old man with a ring of white hair around an otherwise bald head and a matching white mustache, he also made two main points. First, palpably embarrassed, he announced that his client outright denied plagiarism.
Even the judge did a double-take.
Olivier’s lawyer then out-did himself by following that with, “Anyway, this isn’t Mr. Olivier’s fault because Spectrum knew what a fraudster my client is, so they should taken more care in accepting this book from him.”
The judge was speechless.
Rutger whispered to me he’d never heard anything so totally outlandish.
By this point, Her Honor had heard enough. She said, “This is a case of intellectual rape,” and suggested strongly that Spectrum “make an arrangement” with me. She did not invite Olivier to do the same. She said she would rule on his obligations to me after lunch and adjourned for an hour.
Wisely, Spectrum took the hint.
Once that was done, Olivier — who plainly knew the jig was up — ordered his lawyer to opt-in as a party to the “arrangement.”
So his lawyer told Rutger that if we allowed Olivier to pay up now, he would do that. But, he warned, if we waited for the judge to order it, we would get nothing because all Olivier’s money was hidden offshore.
Rutger worked out a deal. The defendants agreed to pulp all of the copies of Fraude, to cease and desist from plagiarizing my work, and to come up with enough money which would cover my costs plus, maybe, a celebratory meal.
The journalists were eager to know from Rutger if “arrangement” meant “settlement.” Understandably, neither Spectrum nor Olivier wanted the press to publish the details of the arrangement.
Instead, Rutger explained that arrangement was the operative word because settlement implied Spectrum and Olivier were paying for their indiscretions.
At the end of hearing, the judge asked me, in English, “Mr. Robinson, did you understand any of what you heard today?”
I smiled, “Not a word, your honor, but you do speak Dutch beautifully.”
She smiled back and Rutger got me out of there before I could say anything else.
And that should have been that.
A kid from “New Amsterdam” had taken on a crook from “old” Amsterdam — successfully reinforced the point that those of us who write for a living must vigorously defend our copyrights because if we don’t, there are plenty of people anxious to take them away, because if we don’t, we will lose them — and proved that no one needs a license to drive a Sherman tank.
But that wasn’t the end.
True to form, Olivier left the courtroom telling reporters that he won because I’d failed to get the “millions” I’d asked for — despite the fact that I never asked for millions, be it dollars, pounds or guilder.
The payment arrangement called for Olivier and Spectrum to pay half of what they owed within 30 days, and the second tranche 60 days later. The first payment came due and Spectrum duly wired their share into Rutger’s client account. They did the same with the second payment.
But Olivier’s lawyer had another idea. He phoned Rutger to ask where he would pick up the cash.
Rutger said, what are you talking about?
The lawyer said he had cash and wanted to hand it over.
Rutger said, no way, and insisted that the lawyer wire the required sum from his client account to Rutger’s client account. Reluctantly, he did. He also made the second payment that way.
And again, that should have been the end of that.
Except, it wasn’t.
Three or four months later, I was traveling when I picked up a voice mail from Rutger asking that I phone him immediately.
As soon as I got him on the phone, he asked, “Have you seen the Dutch papers today?”
I reminded my friend that no, I didn’t regularly read De Telegraaf, or Algemeen Dagblad or De Volkskrant and that, in truth, I’d only ever seen those papers when I was on their front pages. And anyway, even if I’d wanted a subscription, I couldn’t read a word of what was written in them, except my name.
He suggested I get copies, because they had the story that Olivier had just been arrested in Germany in possession of $800,000 in counterfeit US currency.
The clown was even more stupid than I’d thought.
He wound up spending a few years in a German prison for that stunt. I can only hope that, by the time he returned to Holland, his young wife had emptied his secret offshore accounts and gone off to live with a surfer at Bondi Beach in Australia. That would have pleased me.
Yet, all these years later what I still wonder about is this — did he pass off some of that counterfeit currency to his lawyer to pay us? And if he did, why didn’t I ask for twice as much?