This article was original published at Bleeding Cool (in April 2012)
A TALE OF PLAGIARISM – I WROTE ONE OF THE YEAR’S MOST ACCLAIMED DOCUMENTARIES, NOT THAT YOU’D KNOW IT
The Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as follows:
noun • the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.
I’m going to tell you the story of my involvement with the feature documentary, The Four Horsemen. I would like you to tell me if this is plagiarism – or just me being precious.
With his wife, Megan, Ross Ashcroft runs a production company called Motherlode, which makes low budget corporate videos. He also runs a website about economics called Renegade Economist, which is championing economic reform. He used to be a comedian on the open-spot circuit.
In late 2010 he came to me with a film he’d made about the global financial crisis. ‘It’s a mess,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what to do. I need guidance. Can you sort it out for me?’
The film is a passionate call for economic reform, railing against injustice and inequality in the global economy. He had interviewed some very interesting economists, it was full of ideas, but, Ross was right, it was a mess. It kept flitting from one idea to the next and this lack of structure made it incoherent and hard to follow.
The biggest problem was the writing itself. Lots of the dreaded ranting, lots opinion masquerading as fact, too much incomprehensible economic jargon and too many endless sentences. Phrases like ‘the economic indicators are still transactional’ do not make for compelling cinema.
I say ‘the dreaded ranting’. One thing John Stepek, my editor at Moneyweek, has always impressed on me about ranting, which I always thought an excellent lesson, is this – ranting is fine for an audience that already agrees with you, but it alienates everyone else.
The challenge was re-structure the film; to fill the gaps in the thinking, get rid of the ranting to give the film broader appeal and, hardest of all, to put the global financial crisis in a language people can actually understand. I took it on.
I spent every spare moment over the next four or five months either at home writing, re-writing and re-writing or in the studio with the editor Simon Modery re-structuring and re-ordering the material to give the film a through-logic. Ross stepped back – a hard thing to do when it’s your baby – and let me and Simon get on with it.
There was no mention of our system of money in the original, yet to me this is the single most important problem in the modern economic world. I wrote animations to explain it. I took Ross and Megan to a hard money conference so they could meet and secure interviews with some of the charismatic speakers from this world. I gave the film four chapters to reflect the apocalyptic Four Horsemen of the title (previously the title had nothing to do with the content of the film), and found modern manifestations for Conquest, War, Famine and Death. By the time I’d finished, well in excess of 50% of the script were my words (not necessarily my ideas, but my words). In fact, it was probably over 75%, but not even I am anal enough to count them.
I then narrated the film.
About three weeks ago, on March 14th, 2012, there was premiere at the Curzon Soho. There I was all excited I was to see my name up there in the big lights, so to speak – every aspiring screenwriter’s dream – my first full length feature as a writer.
The main titles roll. All the main players are credited – the producers, the editor, the composer, the sound designer, everyone.
Except me. My name isn’t mentioned.
I must have narrated over 300 documentaries in my life. The convention of the form, particularly in a feature, is that you name-check the narrator upfront. It’s so you know who’s talking. In the original version, the narrator – Tony Law – is name-checked. But not me here. Odd.
Anyone watching the film does not know who is narrating the story. Even my girlfriend, sitting next to me, asked if it was Ross narrating.
And the headline credit says, ‘written and directed by Ross Ashcroft’.
The film ends and the final credits roll. Again the headline credit is again, ‘written and directed by Ross Ashcroft’.
Anyone watching that film will automatically assume is entirely written by Ross. This is born out by the reviews, (which , for the most part, have been excellent). Not one of them mentions me (edit – before I wrote this ), yet they all praise Ashcroft for the clarity of ‘his’ writing, for the insights into our system of money and so on.
Robert Zak , for example, of Best For Film praises Ashcroft for ‘one of the clearest and most demystifying attempts at guiding us through the alien landscape of economics.’ Luke Roberts of Rhythm Circus says, ‘Animator Pola Gruszka worked with Ross Ashcroft in producing some exceptional scenes … the most memorable is a simple, graphical explanation of how banks create money out of thin air and then lend it to you at interest’. Ross had nothing to do with ‘the memorable scene’. It was thought of and 100% written by me – and, I should say, brilliantly animated by Pola.
The film even won the praise of Philip French in The Observer who called the writing ‘eloquent’.
Finally, somewhere down in the final credits (fourth or fifth), we have, ‘writing and narration by Dominic Frisby’. What kind of unspecific, obfuscatory, puerile nonsense is ‘writing’? They may as well have said ‘writing and talking’.
My name is also not mentioned in any of the publicity, not in the press pack, on the website, in the interviews Ross has given, not anywhere. They even omitted crediting me on IMDB. (Since amended after I complained, though there is still not a proper narrator’s credit there).
From a marketing point of view, this is odd. I have a following through my column and podcast amongst just the type of people who would buy this film. Moneyweek’s readers, Goldmoney’s listeners and so on will all like this film. Surely it makes sense to get my name out there with it in order to sell copies.
To cap it all, they made a 20-minute film about the making of Four Horsemen. I am not even mentioned in that either, nor was I asked to contribute.
Would you say there is an attempt here to minimize awareness of my contribution from the public eye?
The reason you do this type of work is not for the money. I am on a profit-share and this type of film is never going to be big box office. Your credit is your currency. You do it for the opportunities it creates. But how is it now to create any opportunity if my contribution is all but unknown? Any opportunity has now been taken from me.
Here’s the lesson to take away from all this: always read the contract – or, if you hate contracts – as I do (I can’t bear the unreadable language they’re written in) – have someone read it for you.
We never ever verbally agreed what my credit would be. I always assume the best of people. I stupidly thought I would be properly credited for the work I’d done, as is normal industry practice. But Megan Ashcroft, the producer, slipped in what my credit would be without agreeing it with me first. I cursorily read that I would be credited for my writing and narration (with all those assumptions in my head). What it actually says was ‘your credit will be writing and narration’. So, more fool me, I guess.
But by stating in the main titles that the film is ‘written and directed by Ross Ashcroft’ and publically declaring himself as the writer in all publicity, yet omitting any mention of me, except for a vague credit in the end titles – where only the most conscientious will see it – Ross Ashcroft is making out he is the writer of the film in a way that is not consistent with the facts of how the script was created.
Is this plagiarism? You tell me.
The Four Horsemen is a film that rails against injustice and inequality and calls for economic reform. At its heart is a man who, in my opinion, is passing somebody else’s work off as his own.
Here’s that Oxford Dictionary definition again. Plagiarism is ‘the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own’.
Where exactly, Ross Ashcroft, Mr Renegade Economist, does plagiarism fit into your Brave Economic New World?
I’ll update you in a few months on this story when they try and screw me on the money …
Any views stated here are my own, and my own only. As are the words.
P.S. (May 7, 2012) After various advises – thanks to all those who approached me – on April 26 I wrote to the Ashcrofts and formally asked them to revise the credits ‘on all prints of the film, on dvds and all other modes of exhibition’. I have not yet heard back. Once proper credit is given, I will remove this post.
P.P.S. January 2013. Still no payment. Ah, shucks.
P.P.S. Update. May 2015. The Four Horsemen has had close to 3 million hits on YouTube. No contributors have been paid. No accounts have been supplied since March 2013. There has been no explanation from producers Megan and Ross Ashcroft.