IT'S BEEN a depressing summer for the fans of genre fiction. First, scandal hit the world of the formula romance novel when a titan of the genre, 93-book veteran Janet Dailey, admitted she had plagiarized several scenes in a 1993 novel from the even more prolific Nora Roberts. A week later, best-selling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell was sued in Richmond by a couple who say that her 1992 novel "All That Remains" includes secret details from the unsolved killings of their daughter and her fiance in 1989. Ms. Cornwell once worked in the Richmond medical examiner's office, as does the heroine of her books, Dr. Kay Scarpetta.
It's not clear yet whether Ms. Roberts will take legal action against Ms. Dailey, who was publicly penitent. She said she had been having personal problems in the early 1990s, when the books in question were written, and described the copying as "non-pervasive" -- a choice of words that was taken as a challenge by partisans of Ms. Roberts, who promptly began combing through the vast oeuvre for more parallels. No one, though, seems to doubt that, legal action or no, plagiarism of this sort is a serious thing. Ms. Dailey's publishers have stopped distribution of the offending title and raised questions about her current contract.
The accusations against Ms. Cornwell are murkier. There is no legal basis -- at least in America -- for the notion that people own the rights to events that have happened to them, or that they can sue to control the imaginative use of such events in fiction. The exception is cases where a real person is clearly recognizable. But a rising number of litigants seem more interested in going after the opposite kind of situation, in which events are much changed or a connection is evident to nobody until the charges are made public.
A librarian sued Joe Klein, author of the satiric "Primary Colors," for putting what she called a recognizable cameo of her in a tryst with the fictional counterpart of President Clinton. U.S. publishers withdrew a historical novel by David Leavitt, "While England Slept," when the English writer Stephen Spender charged that its plot was adapted from a passage in his memoirs.
Without the license to use, and alter, events from life, it's not clear anyone would be able to write fiction at all -- be it good, bad or formula. But such cases, even in silly season, carry the serious likelihood that authors and publishers will agree to damaging settlements in cases where they have promulgated nothing more sinister than, perhaps, a bit of literature. Literary legend has it that when Thomas Wolfe went home to Asheville, N.C., after penning novels that bared his soul and the town's secrets, no one would speak to him. Nowadays they would sue for damages, not to mention royalties.