The question of whether crosswords can be plagiarised sometimes comes up. In this case, I’m not going to talk about people possibly copying clues. It’s the repetition of grids I have in my sights.
Now, the following grid:
is used, I think, by all of the national UK dailies. It’s easy to think of it as the H grid, and, indeed, Otterden in the New Statesman (crossword not online, I’m afraid) has deployed the blocks in a very similar grid as Hs to be added to adjacent words. Is it plagiarism for different papers to use the same grid? Can you copyright a grid pattern? In any case, it is unthinkably unlikely for two setters on different papers to come up with the same set of words for a grid, so really the question of plagiarism doesn’t arise.
Once you get into thematic barred crosswords, even the idea of the same grid being reused becomes…well, maybe not so improbable. Here’s one of mine:
It was used for a Listener puzzle called The Uncertainty Principle in 1994. It’s a perfectly acceptable grid in terms of the proportions of unchecked letters, and so on. It could be used in a Beelzebub or Azed puzzle without comment (a bit short on the longer answers, perhaps). However, The Uncertainty Principle was a puzzle that frustrated a lot of people and it’s fair to say that it was probably the wrong grid for the gimmick. It didn’t get that low an entry, but I suspect a lot of people may have abandoned it part-way through.
In 1996 I turned to solve the Listener puzzle one day. A setter’s début – but that grid looked familiar, very familiar. Well, it’s not impossible – there are umpteen zillions of credible grids, but some of these four-way symmetry ones seem to be a recognisable sub-family with common features, so it’s perhaps less incredible to find the same grid of this type, or a very similar one, cropping up (and like as not with a swastika or fylfot in the middle, too). I may not have been the first person to chance on that design anyway.
While it might be thought slightly nerdish to be able to remember a grid from a few years earlier, there’s worse to come, I’m afraid. As I solved the puzzle, I became aware of a vague feeling of ‘Didn’t I have that answer, and in that exact spot…and that one…and…?’ So I hauled out the files and used my old grid as a guide to interpreting the remaining unsolved clues. I reckoned about two-thirds of the answers were the same as in my 1994 puzzle.
But let me be clear – a different gimmick and necessarily a different set of clues. My hypothesis is that the setter in question had got stuck on The Uncertainty Principle, and, when searching for a new grid for their own puzzle, had taken that incomplete one and simply filled in the entries they hadn’t solved with new words, some of which were different.
I raised it as a curiosity with the editorial team at the time, sending them the two completed grids side by side. As Mike Rich noted in reply, it was indeed a curiosity. But (he went on) it was only likely to be spotted by one person, and that person had, well, merely raised it as a curiosity (and had got a quick solve out of it, to boot). It wasn’t exactly a strident mandate for action, whatever action might be deemed suitable.
Nor was it, nor is it. And had I not started a blog it might have lain dormant. But it seems an event worth not losing entirely.
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