In 1981, the Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar published a novella, Max and the Cats, about a young man stuck in a lifeboat with a panther. In 2002, the Canadian writer Yann Martel won the Man Booker Prize for his bestselling Life of Pi, about a young man stuck in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Martel didn’t have to worry that his appropriation would be discovered. He preemptively tattled on himself, thanking Scliar “for the spark of life” in an author’s note and confessing, in an interview with the Guardian, “I remember thinking, man, that’s a brilliant premise” upon reading a review of Scliar’s book.

When Dr. Scliar, literary Brazil, and The New York Times finally took notice, punishment was swift and severe. No, not really. Scliar, though baffled by Martel, declined to pursue legal action. Martel persevered in his delusional belie ...