Although Alex Haley has helped fill 853 pages of court transcript in defense of his 688-page novel "Roots," he is still faced with a plagiarism suit over a book he says he didn't read.
A U.S. magistrate has found that Haley had "access" to the 1966 novel "Jubilee" by Margaret Walker Alexander, who claims in a suit against Haley that parts of "Roots" were "largely copied" from her book.
The prelimineary "report," filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, did not consider other factors in the case: whether there were similarities "sufficient to prove copying" or whether any material that might have been copied was "so material" or "substantial" as to constitute unlawful appropriation."
The report has been set to Federal Judge Marvin E. Frankel, who will consider it in acting on the suit brought by Alexander.
Haley, reached in Los Angeles, said he did not consider the magistrate's report a set back. "I really do not and neither do my lawyers," he said.
(A second report filed by the magistrate, on a second suit brought by Alexander against Haley, said that Haley did not have access to a pamphlet published in 1972 by Alexander called "How I Wrote Jubilee." Alexander alleged that Haley had infringed on the pamphlet.)
According to the first report filed recently by Magistrate Nina Gershon, Haley said at a hearing last December that he had never read "Jubilee" except for portions after Alexander's suit was filed.But Gershon said "the general denial by Haley that he read 'Jubilee' is insufficient to negate the inference that . . . there was sufficient access to justify a finding of copying."
Gershon said that access means that Haley had "a reasonable opportunity to view or read" the book and that "a finding of access is a basis for inferring copyring." She concluded that "the evidence of access in this case is far greater than the minimum required."
"By his own testimony," Gershon said in the report, "he definitely read some fiction during the period that he was preparing to write 'Roots' and he does not 'indelibly remember' every book he read during the period. He was 'sure' there were works that he had consulted that did not appear on . . . the list of sources which he had prepared for the litigation."
Haley, who is writing a book called "Search" about how he wrote "Roots," yesterday again denied that he had read "Jubilee."
"The only feeling I have about the access aspect, and I don't want to make some remark sounding flip . . . but I really feel that whenever someone has published a book that has been nationally distributed, then it would seem to me that everyone in that nation would have access to it."
Haley called the allegations against him "gratuitous" and said that "if you have a book that has the fortune to be extremely successful, you can just about antificipate one or more people are going to come up legally and make some claim that you took from them."
Alexander, director of black studies at Jackson State University, said she was unaware the report had been filed and declined comment on it. But she said, "All the evidence can be found in the books themselves," and claimed "similaritities . . . too many to be coincidental."
A similar suit against Haley in the same court was also brought last year by Harold Courlander of Bethesda, author of the 1967 novel "The African." Courlander, who has compiled a list of many alleged similarities between his book and "Roots," said yesterday, "I have absolutely no doubt as to what took place or there wouldn't be a suit."