Descendant of Doctor Zhivago author loses copyright court case | Books

A descendant of the Doctor Zhivago author, Boris Pasternak, has lost a claim for copyright infringement against the writer of a novel about the publication of the Russian epic.

Anna Pasternak claimed seven chapters in Lara Prescott’s work of historical fiction, The Secrets We Kept (TSWK), copied elements from her own book Lara, a 2016 biography of her great uncle’s lover Olga Ivinskaya.

Ivinskaya was the muse for the character of Lara, played by Julie Christie, in David Lean’s 1965 film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago, which also starred Omar Sharif.

Prescott’s novel, a fictionalised account of how the CIA planned to use Doctor Zhivago as a propaganda tool during the cold war, was published in 2019 as part of a $2.5m two-book deal with Penguin Random House. The film rights were also sold.

Pasternak claimed it copied a substantial part of the selection, structure and arrangement of facts and incidents that she said she created when she wrote Lara.

However, in a judgment at the high court in London on Tuesday, Mr Justice Edwin Johnson said: “It is clear that the defendant did not copy from Lara the selection of events in the relevant chapters of TSWK or any part of that selection. The essential reason for this is that Lara and TSWK are fundamentally different works.

“Lara is a nonfictional historical work. The claimant stressed in her evidence that while it was her object to tell the story in an accessible and readable manner, reading more like fiction, the book is not a work of fiction and describes actual events. TSWK is a work of historical fiction. It is based on real events, but those real events have been woven into the story devised by the defendant, and have themselves been adapted to suit the story.”

The judge said the relevant chapters of the two books were concerned with the same historical events in the lives of Boris Pasternak and Ivinskaya and that the respective authors used the same principal source materials, which Anna Pasternak had copied “substantial parts” from.

He said: “In these circumstances it is not surprising that the sequence of events, in each work, follows the same basic chronology, although I stress the reference to basic chronology; given the differences in events and their ordering as between the two works.

“Equally, it is not surprising that one finds some of the same details in each work. None of these areas of similarity or overlap seem to me to come anywhere near establishing that the defendant copied the selection of events in the relevant chapters of Lara.”

Johnson also said it was “extraordinary” that Pasternak could bring a copyright claim without having read Prescott’s book.

Prescott, who lives in the US state of New Hampshire, said she was “very pleased to have been vindicated”. She added: “Above all else, this judgment affirms my artistic integrity throughout the years I spent researching, writing and editing my novel.”

Pasternak said it was a claim she “felt compelled to bring, both in defense of my family’s literary heritage and to give nonfiction writers adequate protection from the increasingly popular genre of historical fiction”.

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