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True Detective’ Writer Nic Pizzolatto Denies Plagiarism Claim

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey is nominated for an Emmy for his work on HBO's "True Detective." LACEY TERRELL / HBO

Rust Cohle's pessimistic monologues on HBO's "True Detective" have earned rapturous praise from critics and fans, and they even helped star Matthew McConaughey and writer Nic Pizzolatto score Emmy nominations. But some are saying that distinct dialogue sounds familiar — maybe too familiar.

On Monday, the editor of a site dedicated to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft published a lengthy article accusing "True Detective's" Pizzolatto, also a novelist, of plagiarizing directly from Thomas Ligotti's "The Conspiracy Against the Human Race."

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Collaborating with "Thomas Ligotti Online" founder Jon Padgett, Davis listed about a dozen examples he and Padgett claim demonstrate that Cohle's dark philosophies and his distinct vocabulary were lifted from Ligotti.

"As I reviewed Jon's research, and did more of my own, any doubts I had about plagiarism disappeared," "Lovecraft eZine" editor Mike Davis wrote. "It became obvious to me that Pizzolatto had plagiarized Thomas Ligotti and others — in some places using exact quotes, and in others changing a word here and there, paraphrasing in much the same way that a high school student will cheat on an essay by copying someone else's work and substituting a few words of their own."

The series' first season ended in March, but Padgett told Davis he was motivated to go public with his accusations because Pizzolatto is nominated for a writing Emmy and the voting ends on Aug. 14.

"I’d like the Emmy voters to know that, though Pizzolatto has made a big deal of being the show’s creator and sole writer, everything special about 'True Detective’s' writing was arguably written (word for word or paraphrased) by others," Padgett said in the piece. "In my opinion, he doesn't deserve to be nominated for the Outstanding Writing Emmy award, let alone be the recipient of such an award."

But on Thursday Pizzolatto issued a statement categorically denying he lifted any of Ligotti's words.

"Nothing in the television show 'True Detective' was plagiarized," he said. "The philosophical thoughts expressed by Rust Cohle do not represent any thought or idea unique to any one author; rather these are the philosophical tenets of a pessimistic, anti-natalist philosophy with an historic tradition including Arthur Schopenauer, Friedrich Nietzche, E.M. Cioran, and various other philosophers, all of whom express these ideas. As an autodidact pessimist, Cohle speaks toward that philosophy with erudition and in his own words. The ideas within this philosophy are certainly not exclusive to any writer."

HBO also defended the network's new star writer and producer on Thursday.

"'True Detective' is a work of exceptional originality and the story, plot, characters and dialogue are that of Nic Pizzolatto. Philosophical concepts are free for anyone to use, including writers of fiction, and there have been many such examples in the past. Exploring and engaging with ideas and themes that philosophers and novelists have wrestled with over time is one of the show’s many strengths — we stand by the show, its writing and Nic Pizzolatto entirely."

Image: True Detective
Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart on HBO's "True Detective." Lacey Terrell / HBO

Davis and Padgett were not the first to bring up Ligotti's influence on "True Detective." Wall Street Journal writer Michael Calia wrote in January that when he first heard Oscar winner McConaughey say things like, "We are creatures that should not exist by natural law," he immediately was reminded of Ligotti's writings. A few days later, Calia interviewed Pizzolatto about Ligotti and whether he had read "The Conspiracy Against the Human Race." Calia was not inquiring about plagiarism; he asked Pizzolatto about his influences, especially for the character of Cohle.

Pizzolatto, who wrote all eight episodes of the series, replied that he had read Ligotti and added that there were a couple of lines in the first episode "that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers." In his piece, Davis uses Calia's column to bolster his assertion that Pizzolatto only discusses the works that influenced his writing when directly asked. Calia did not respond to an interview request from NBC News.

Pizzolatto also addressed the issue in The Arkham Digest when writer Justin Steele asked him how much of an influence Ligotti had on Rust Cohle and the show.

"The work and vision of Thomas Ligotti was very influential for imagining Cohle's overall worldview," Pizzolatto replied, adding that he was avoiding explaining Cohle's philosophies so early in the run of the series. That was the last time Pizzolatto discussed Ligotti in any interviews, according to Davis.

Since the issue surfaced, other journalists also have come to Pizzolatto's defense. Slate's David Haglund said Davis and Padgett have spurred "interesting questions about pastiche, homage, attribution, and influence, but a 'strong accusation' of plagiarism it isn’t."

Greg Cwik of Indiewire agrees: "The fact of the matter is that artists rip off artists all the time, and what Pizzolatto did isn’t unusual or morally decrepit. More importantly, it makes sense within the structure of the show: Rust Cohle claims that we’re all under the illusion that there is a self, which is an idea he got from an obscure writer who borrowed from Williams S. Burroughs and Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. People are always trying to pass off things they’ve read as their own ideas. Why should Cohle be any different?"

"If 'True Detective' was not a cop show on HBO but a term paper in a philosophy class, then it would indeed be wrong for him to lift such ideas and metaphors from an author without citing him in the work itself," Slate's Haglund wrote.

"Nic Pizzolatto was not taking a test. He was writing a fictional TV show."