Nic Pizzolatto’s “Homage” to Ligotti: Right and Wrong vs. the Law and the Courts

As expected, some commenters agreed with my article/interview with Jon Padgett yesterday, and some disagreed.  Some saw it as obvious that Nic Pizzolatto plagiarized Thomas Ligotti, others didn’t.

Well, when you compare phrase after phrase, it does seem obvious.  But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.  What I found particularly interesting were the folks who wrote, in so many words, that it wouldn’t stand up in court, therefore it wasn’t wrong.

Those people are missing the point.

I have no idea whether it would stand up in court.  Frankly, I don’t care.  What I do care about is right and wrong.  And I care about how writers treat other writers.

What Pizzolatto did was wrong. He didn’t come up with those phrases and ideas on his own — he admitted that, when he was forced to do so.  What Pizzolatto did that was worse than paraphrasing Ligotti’s words was refusing to acknowledge Ligotti for those words.

He could have acknowledged Ligotti any number of times — he didn’t. He only did it when an interviewer cornered him with evidence that he lifted directly from Ligotti’s book. He could have given Ligotti the credit on the DVD commentary — he didn’t.  (Which completely negates his “I can’t talk about Ligotti until the series is over” excuse.)

Pizzolatto seems to want the TV-viewing public to think that he came up with those phrases and ideas.

The right thing to do would have been to credit Ligotti for them. And the right thing doesn’t always have anything to do the law.

I’m not a frequenter of Thomas Ligotti Online, and though I enjoy Ligotti’s work, I’ve discovered it relatively recently.  I’m not doing this because I am defending him — that’s just a by-product.  I wrote that article because if we allow Nic Pizzolatto to get away with pawning off those key Cohle statements as his own, then where does it end?  Is it now okay for any writer to do the same?  Is it now alright for any writer to read another author’s book, find some phrases that he likes, then move a word here and there and pass it off as his own?

That’s what I want to help prevent.

Nic Pizzolatto may or may not have done anything illegal.  But what he did was certainly wrong.  He went too far.  It’s one thing to borrow someone’s ideas.  It’s quite another thing to borrow someone’s ideas and their phrasing, their words, and to acknowledge that writer only when one is forced to do so.

Does he really deserve an Emmy for that?

(Below: video compares key phrases)

21 responses to “Nic Pizzolatto’s “Homage” to Ligotti: Right and Wrong vs. the Law and the Courts

  1. Pingback: True Detective HBO Series: Plagiarism or Fair Use? | Paula Cappa·

  2. I’m sorry, the whole this was a homage thing is bunk. When you do an homage, you lavish praise on the person you are homaging (is that a word?) You don’t try and hide it from the world, grudgingly admit it, and barely mention it.

    Is this just part of the game? Maybe. Is it wrong? Seems like it. But was this an homage that some people have misinterpreted? Hardly.


  3. Well, I live in Brazil and I don’t know enough of the American Right for say if what Pizzolatto did is illegal. By brazilian Law undoubtedly it is. But, I agree that the central point it is a moral point. What Pizzolatto did is wrong, there is no excuses for plagiarism.


  4. I don’t see where the basic storyline of True Detective is Ligotti’s. I do agree that the motivation of the character Cohle seems to be almost pure Ligotti. He should have referenced Ligotti and giving him credit for his ideas creating the character of Cohle and the mood of the entire show.


    • “Has Pizzolatto been asked or allowed to respond to all this by us here?”

      I’m wondering the same thing.


  5. I’ve been reading a biography of William S. Burroughs… “William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible”… and it describes how Burroughs appropriated characters and sometimes whole passages from other authors’ books, in creating new works of his own. He didn’t acknowledge his sources when he did this. Isn’t that, in essence, what’s happening here? Its not like Pizzolatto made a documentary about the pointlessness of existence that was modeled on Ligotti’s book, at most he cribbed from it and several others’ work to create something new. I perhaps have more of a music producers point of view – I make music and appreciate that sampling can be a viable way to take sounds and then use them to create totally new works – and in this case, I feel Pizzolatto’s work is greater than the sum of it’s parts. As Picasso said, good artists copy, great artists steal.


  6. Here’s what I still don’t quite get:

    “What Pizzolatto did was wrong. He didn’t come up with those phrases and ideas on his own — he admitted that, when he was forced to do so. What Pizzolatto did that was worse than paraphrasing Ligotti’s words was refusing to acknowledge Ligotti for those words.”

    The assumption is that the WSJ writer (Calia) sprung the obvious Ligotti influences on Pizzolatto and *caught* him so that he was “forced” to admit it. Granted, he ignored the mention of Ligotti in the Arkham Digest interview. Was he being cagey? Maybe—it’s certainly possible he didn’t want to admit how much he drew from Ligotti. But in Calia’s interview he was quite candid about basing Cohle’s character/philosophy on Ligotti’s writing. So there it is—out in the open. He’s not hiding it or saying the influences aren’t there. You and Jon have drawn your conclusions, and you have supported them with your examples and arguments. If Ligotti agrees he can go after Pizzolatto. If he enjoys the influence on Cohle and considers it a homage and not theft, well, what then?

    It’s important to note that CATHR is *nonfiction.* Ligotti is not the only writer to deal in cosmic nihilism as philosophy, as Ligotti himself explains quite clearly when speaking of his own influences.

    And here’s a thought experiment I think is relevant—if I base a fictional character’s worldview on the work of philosopher, is that plagiarism? Let’s say I love the work of Slavoj Žižek, and I create a character that espouses his philosophy. The character sounds just like him, uses similar phrasing, and is pretty much a stand-in for the man. Does that make me a plagiarist? Why can’t I use someone’s philosophy in the mouth of a fictional character? Because that’s what Pizzolatto did. He created Cohle and turned him into a Ligottian philosopher. Is that plagiarism? I don’t think it’s a clearcut “yes.”


    • Michael, let me lay it out:

      1) I was the source for the WSJ article that started the buzz about Ligotti in an official way, and reporter Mike Calia laid a couple of instances of Pizzolatto’s “borrowing” from Ligotti’s CATHR. Pizzolatto then agreed to an interview and talked about Ligotti — under pressure. He never mentioned Ligotti before or after that interview and the mini-interview he immediately sent to Justin Steele of THE ARKHAM DIGEST. And this is a guy who talked about influences all the time.

      2) This wasn’t some intellectual property theft in a broad sense. It was very specific. It wasn’t like Pizzolatto said to himself, “Hey! I’ll make a nihilist detective!” and just happened to write coincidentally in the same style and form of parts of Ligotti’s CATHR. The content was practically identical, and–in some cases–it was. I’m not sure how you can continue to defend this fact.

      3) See the article above — The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is part philosophy, part philosophical criticism and response, part literary criticism, part metafictional expression of horror – I’ve never read anything like it. Its singular nature is one of the reasons that it’s so easy to detect when another writer uses Ligotti’s expressions and ideas (word for word or in paraphrase). This fact renders moot any argument that philosophical works can be held to a lower standard of literary ethics than other literary forms (an argument that is unlikely to have many serious supporters in any case). Significantly, Ligotti is meticulous about citation in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race—always giving appropriate credit to the writers and philosophers whose work he discusses and analyzes and synthesizes at length.


      • And, of course, as is laid out in the first article, this isn’t mere “influence” or even “homage.” It goes well beyond that, and Pizzolatto (and HBO) knows it.


  7. Mike, have you or John considered contacting a general pop culture website about this? (The AV Club and Salon come to mind.) It would be great if this sparked conversation beyond just weird fiction aficionados.


  8. I agree 100% and I was looking forward to watching TD, but now I’m even more thrilled to find another WF writer, Thomas Ligotti. I think it would be a shame to let this fall out of interest, which I’m sure Nic Pizzolatto would like to see happen, given time this will all go away. So how do we make sure this stays fresh, that we don’t let this happen. If ever an article needed to be reposted, again and again. I think this should be addressed continually and to the masses and still be addressed next week, month, year?


  9. As a writer who has been plagiarized before, I detest plagiarism and plagiarists. I hope, for the sake of plagiarists, that there is a Hell and that it is bitterly and excruciatingly cold.


  10. And honestly how many thousands of times has the creator/writer of a television series or a movie likely stolen lines of dialogue from a book they’ve read. It’s a different medium altogether and is in no way plagiarism in my opinion.


  11. I think you’ve taken this almost ridiculously too far. It’s clear he’s read “The Conspiracy Against The Human Race” and built upon the character of Rust Cohle with it in mind but if anything he did enough of a favor for Ligotti as it is. The True Detective audience knows who Ligotti is now if they’ve read articles about the show on the internet. It’s certainly spiked an interest in Mr.Ligotti and he should be thankful.

    Ligotti didn’t come up with any of the ideas he expresses in “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race” he just eloquently phrased them in a sort of nihilistic confession. Mr. Pizzolatto obviously thought some of the phrases would enhance a character in his tv show. I don’t think he owes Ligotti anything. We all know Ligotti’s work was an influence and how vocal Pizzolatto wants to be about that is up to him. There’s no way this would stand in court and no reason for it to be a big deal.

    Keep beating the dead horse.


  12. In the words of oft-plagiarized author, Harlan Ellison… “….don’t let your
    ego get so hungry that it leads you to act unethically because you think you’re Hot Stuff and nobody can touch you.Don’t think the rest of the world is as stupid as you’d like it to be: somebody is always watching.”


  13. Here here, Mike!

    And I would add that–significantly–the CONTENT of Cohle’s words especially in that defining, initial car scene are IDENTICAL to Ligotti’s source material. We’re not talking about a mere aping of Ligotti’s style, general ideas or diction. The specific *meaning* is the same. It’s no different than a high school kid rearranging a word here or there in order to give them some plagiarism cover. That stated, plenty of instances of word for word lifting of a phrase here or a phrase there is apparent.

    I know plagiarism is a loaded word, and I would not use it unless I was absolutely convinced that the evidence points to plagiarism — not just as some people understand it — but how it is actually defined.


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