The Non-infringability of Plot and/or Ideas

People’s confusion over what plagiarism is sometimes drives me to loud and angry screamage. Thus I was thrilled to read Candy’s recent post, On Ideas, Repetitiveness and Copyright Infringement over at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books:

There seems to be some confusion regarding the status of ideas in copyright law. You can’t copyright a plot or an idea. You can only copyright the specific expression of that plot or idea as recorded in some sort of tangible form. Think about the nightmare of attempting to nail down and legislate a plot or idea for a story. How specific would you have to be before you could declare something unique enough to copyright?

“An angst-ridden story about a vampire falling in love with a human.”
Dude, if you can copyright that and collect a small fee every time somebody published that story, you could have your own giant pool of gold coins to swim in, Scrooge McDuck-stylee. (Side note: doesn’t that sound like a painful idea to you? Because it always has to me.)

“An angst-ridden story in a contemporary setting about a vampire warrior falling in love with a human woman.”
OK, that’s a little bit more specific, but c’mon. (Also: goddamn, think of all those germs on all those coins. There is a reason why we call it “filthy rich.”)

What. She. Said.

Read it! Memorise it! Tattoo it all over your body!

I am so sick of people thinking that retelling a story is plagiarism. If that were so then we would have, at most, ten novels. All books about vampires, zombies, middle-aged English professors are not the same (well, okay, some of them are). It’s not about the story you tell so much as HOW YOU TELL IT. Why is that so difficult to understand?

Georgette Heyer did not plagiarise Jane Austen. David Eddings didn’t plagiarise J. R. R. Tolkien. Walter Mosley didn’t plagiarise Raymond Chandler. I did not plagiarise C. S. Lewis.

The next person who says to me, “Oh my God! Did you see that Certain Writer’s next book is set in a future world where you have to have your skin removed and replaced with carbon when you turn sixteen? That is just like Scott’s Uglies books! He should sue!” That person will get smacked. HARD.

There are bazillions of science fiction stories where something happens to you at a certain age. Logan’s Run anyone? And many more stories set after the apocalypse. There are even a fair few that deal with physical beauty and its enforcement. Like those two Twilight Zone episodes, “Number 12 Looks Just Like Me” and “Eye of the Beholder” (both based on short stories).

Watch them and read Scott’s books. The only thing they have in common is an idea. The characters, the mood, the texture of the writing, the way they makes you feel is very different. Scott paints an entire world with three-dimensional characters and relationships; those eps can only lightly sketch in world and characters. Given that they’re short and Scott’s books in the Uglies world add up to almost 400,000 words, that’s not surprising.

Same goes for the ridiculous claim that Melissa Marr is ripping of Laurel K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry books. As if.

Holly Black refutes the claim succinctly:

I can only assume that Ms. Henderson didn’t realize there’s an entire genre of urban fantasy faery books published in the 80s like Terri Windling’s Bordertown anthologies and the the novels of Emma Bull, Charles de Lint, Will Shetterly, Ellen Kushner, Midori Snyder and many others.

It is really bizarre to me that she would point to the Merry Gentry series as though it was the first to use faerie folklore in a contemporary setting.

Plagiarism happens when you steal someone else’s words. If that future world book with the carbon skin had the following opening: “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.” And featured characters called Telly, Shiy, and Daniel who ride hoverboards and wind up starting a revolution and are described with language that is very close to how Scott described Tally, Shay, and David and have very similar dialogue, well, then I might start to be a little more concerned.

But remember Scott’s opening sentence is already a riff on the opening of William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” It’s a little science fiction joke/homage. Homage is not plagiarism either.

Lots of books echo the words of other books. On purpose. To bring them to mind so that the reader (if they recognise the reference) can remember the earlier book and enjoy the light it casts on the one they have in their hands. Literary echoes done well are cool.

Writers are influenced by the writers who went before them. Every single book they’ve read, movie they’ve seen, place they’ve been, conversation they’ve had creeps into their work. I know that if I hadn’t read Enid Blyton, Angela Carter, Charles Dickens, Isak Dinesen, Raymond Chandler, and Tanith Lee obsessively as a kid my writing would be very different. Without Flowers in the Attic and Alice in Wonderland I might not even be a writer.

Pretty much all writers borrow plots. Even when they’re not aware that that’s what they’re doing. I was not thinking of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when I wrote Magic or Madness. Borrowing a plot is NOT a bad thing. It’s what writers do. Shakespeare did it. Afterall, there aren’t that many plots: Stranger comes to town and changes everything! Person goes on a journey and changes themself! Two people fall in love but their family is against it! Two people meet, hate each other, then gradually realise they were meant to be together!

Think about telling a joke. Some people do it well. Some people are total shite at it. It’s not the joke—it’s the way it’s told.

Here’s a game for you. How many novels, movies or whatever can you think of that fit the following descriptions. The first two are lifted from the Smart Bitches:

  • A woman dares to make the mistake of evincing sexual desire and unconventionality, the punishment for which is death
  • Scrawny, gormless boy enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually triumphs over adversity
  • Teen girl discovers she is faery, not human, and becomes entangled with a handsome faery
  • Teen copes with drunk/drug-addicted/loser father/mother and learns own strength

Thus endeth the rant. I must now go back to my idea and plot stealing. Novels don’t write themselves you know.


  1. libba on #

    nobody schools like justine “foxy pants” larbalestier! and nobody puts baby in a corner, either! oh, hey…now i have an idea for a novel about a girl who goes to the catskills with her family and learns to dance to a cheesy eighties song and…

    what you said, miz j. well done.

  2. Justine on #

    That would be the best book EVER! You MUST write it!

  3. Melissa on #

    Great post, and great explanation– I think this will clear up many things for many people!

    Also, it’s funny for me that you mention Logan’s Run, as my dad and I rented it last night and watched it (my first time seeing it). WEIRDNESS!

  4. Margaret Crocker on #

    That’s why my next novel will be “Gone With The Wind 3010.” (I heard you can’t copyright titles either.) Space plantations!

  5. veejane on #

    If idea-ripoff were plagiarism, then all those gleeful Die Hard On A _____ movies would never have come into existence! And that’s a scenario too sorrowful to contemplate.

    Also, Rosemary Sutcliff, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, Thomas Malory, and… just about everybody else on the planet would be disallowed from writing new versions of Arthurian legend. Lame!

  6. tiffany trent on #

    Well said, as only you could say it. 😉

  7. Camille on #

    Glory. Hallelujah. Preach it. 🙂

  8. James on #

    Neil Gaiman wrote an intro to one of my Starchild graphic novels, as a response to the hate mail I got from readers who were CERTAIN I’d stolen two characters from Neil’s Sandman books.

    The characters I ‘stole’?

    Oberon and Titania.

  9. little willow on #

    Three cheers, Justine.

  10. Carrie Jones on #

    Brilliantly done, Justine. I don’t know you except through your books, but … wow.
    Thank you for posting this.

    -Carrie Jones

  11. Isabella on #

    Ooh, great job on this; hopefully it’ll clear things up a bit.
    It’s quite brutal how blurred the line between originality, adaptation, and plain outright plagerism has become these days (espeically in high schools); there was actually an article about it on the news the other day.

    As for the game… some of them do bring books to mind, but I can’t seem to remember the titles presently. 🙁


  12. karen on #

    Novels don’t write themselves, you know.

    Of course they don’t! Isn’t the whole beauty of plagiarism that other people write them for you?

    (Sorry. What I meant to say is something more like: word.)

  13. liliya on #

    I can’t believe you put Enid Blyton in the same list as Carter, Dinesen, Dickens and Chandler…

    Isak Dinesen ‘plagiarised’ her own ideas. just compare ‘sorrow-acre’ and ‘a country tale’. So did Angela Carter. Writers should be able to sue their older selves.

  14. Justine on #

    Liliya: I can’t believe you put Enid Blyton in the same list as Carter, Dinesen, Dickens and Chandler . . . .

    I know! She’s so much better than those other hacks.

  15. Steve Buchheit on #

    There’s this character, and then something happens.

    If I could copyright that, Bill Gates would be my towel boy.

    And thank the gods that you can’t copyright plot or ideas, ’cause if you could, Charles DeLint would track me down and pummel me. Of course he’d be very nice about it, and there would be an excellent sound track to the beating.

  16. liliya on #


  17. the liaress (Diana) on #

    James, you made me laugh though 8 comments straight.

    I get the same crap, except I “stole” from stuff that actually happened.

  18. Jane Henderson on #

    Bloggers are better writers than readers, aren’t they?

    I never used the word plagiarize nor did I state that there is any copyright infringement.
    I did ask a few questions, trying to promote discussion. I have in fact read most of the book.
    I do NOT in fact think that it would be easy to claim infringement. I do think the books’ covers and basic theme (urban faerie with lots of erotic suggestion)is similar and no one has shown me another young adult fantasy cover that looks remotely similar to what I am writing about.
    Genre covers often help guide a reader to books he/she likes.
    The only real problem is whether faery sex should be marketed to 12 year old girls. (and I quote some of “Ink Exchange” at’s book blog).
    I think what deserves consideration (and not just silly and crass arguments) is whether there should be more delineation between books marketed to 12-year-olds and those marketed to 16- and 17-year olds.
    For more explanation, please see my book blog.

  19. Justine on #

    Jane Henderson: I’m a little astonished by your comment here. While I link to your comments because they started this whole debate, my post is not about you: it’s about common misaprehensions about plagiarism.

  20. Diana Peterfreund on #

    My dear Jane, I’m not quite sure what you constitute as a cover that “looks remotely like what [you’re] talking about.” Is it the extreme close up, cutting off body parts? (See any of my covers.) The soft focus? (How about Elizabeth Scott’s BLOOM). Or is it the blue-toned wash? (Popular on horror novels for years, see “No Time to Die,” circa 2001, by Elizabeth Chandler.)

    Or is it all three? Because if so, I submit to you the following, on a reprint edition of S.E. Hinton’s classic THE OUTSIDERS, in which you see only the bared chest of a blue washed boy.

    I think what you are noting here is the prominent current fashion in covers, regardless of genre.

  21. cassie clare on #

    There are trends in book cover art, just like there are trends in everything else. Sometimes you’ll even see two covers with exactly the same image, because the same stock photography is used. It’s so common as to be fairly unremarkable (and it’s hardly as if the author has anything to do with the cover in most cases, anyway.)

  22. holly black on #

    Ms. Henderson, teen books are for teenagers and they address the concerns of being a teenager. One of those concerns is sex. If you look at the whole of YA literature, you will find that there is no dearth of books with sexual situations or sexually active protagonists. That is one of the differences between books for teens and those for middle grade readers. Although you might not feel as though teen books should address sex, I’m not sure why you’re targeting Ink Exchange in particular.

    In addition, I would point you to some other books for teenagers with faeries and sexual situations: Francesca Lia Block’s I Was a Teenage Fairy (2000) and my Tithe (2002).

  23. Bill on #

    Justine riffed on this at length during the “Originality is Overrated” panel at High-Voltage ConFusion weekend before last: Scott, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, John Scalzi, Pat Rothfuss and Doselle Young were equally enlightening.
    It was awesome. All of you are even funnier in person than in print.

  24. kim on #

    justine i agree with what you said when you replied to liliya’s commet abut dickens.
    i had to do a project on him for english class. when we were doing the timeline of his life when we got to the last date where he died we said “Yes! dickens is dead!!!!” we also made the timeline all girly with fuzzy stuff, rainbow colored pastel markers, sequins, and rinestones! 🙂 we were bringing out his feminine side! 🙂 i HATE dickens!!!!! 😡

  25. Onyx on #

    I’m so glad you wrote this post! I’m an aspiring writer and I’m always talking to my friends (who are also writers) about the differences between inspiration and thievery. You really hit the nail on the head. How exciting!

    P.S. I got giddy with excitement when Bordertown was mentioned! I love Shetterly’s version of events!

  26. David Gill on #

    “I never used the word plagiarize nor did I state that there is any copyright infringement.”

    Of course, you did. Right here: “…the cliche is that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ but where does flattery end and copyright infringement begin? ”

    Ending a sentence with a question mark doesn’t make it a question.

    The gap between ‘state’ and ‘insinuate’ is far and wide in your mind, I suppose, but you certainly did plant the infringement thought in the reader’s mind.

  27. maureen johnson on #

    I think my response is to Jane as well, as she has claimed this post for her own (which is a bit odd).

    Justine is answering a question that kids (and adults) ask about all the time: what is plagiarism? And she’s done it with her usual style. She didn’t just get that fancy PhD for looking good! (But it helped, I am sure.)

    Jane, I think you *did* attempt to talk about this in your own blog, but poorly. You wrote the sentence cited above, “‘‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ but where does flattery end and copyright infringement begin? ” And you called the post: “Laurell K. Hamilton knock-off for teens?”

    This is why dozens of people just said, “J’accuse!” Justine pointed out your blog because your comments were exactly the kind that perpetuate confusion about this topic.

    From there, then you mostly talked about cover art, and then somewhere in the end threw in a swing about the difference between YA for 12 year olds and YA for 17 year olds.

    That’s not starting a discussion. That’s throwing out three completely different, and somewhat half-baked “topics.” If I came out and said, “A bat, a banana, and a stapler. DISCUSS!” . . . you would probably, and rightly, ask . . . why have you just listed a bunch of unconnected things? What are we supposed to talk about?

    The bottom line is: there is a big difference between the great tradition of story adoption and plagiarism. All of literature was built on the first one. The second one is naughty and gets you kicked out of school.

    I have no idea what the point is about the cover. There are many trends in cover art. (And it’s not just genre readers who look for clues in the covers.) Ink Exchange has an attractive blue-wash cover, featuring a girl with wings on her back. It looks a bit to me like Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels, but with more tattoo-y goodness.

    The issue of how YA is marketed is a much more complex issue. Should we be marketing faery sex to 12 year olds? Like Holly says, in a longer and more elegant remark above, sex is an issue that kids need to be able to discuss. YA has to deal with it. If your question is, should kids who are 12 be exposed to books that have sex in them . . . I think yes. Ignorance is not bliss.

    I’m not worried about faery sex in particular, largely because I am not worried about faeries. Justine has handily written the book on how to deal with them should they become too numerous, or get too saucy.

  28. Lindsay York Levack on #

    Yes. Thank you, Ms Larbalestier. Well said.

    And I have to *sigh* because I *did* put up a couple of book covers for comparison to Ms Marr’s. Apparently, they’re not good enough. Also, what is with Ms Henderson requesting *us* to do the research for her? (Look up the covers yourself, Ms Henderson. It’s your discussion. You cover it.)

  29. Lauren on #

    If I could join in the dogpile for a moment, Jane also says: “with the sexualization of girls starting so young in all facets of culture, should parents speak up about what they see?”

    Isn’t it possible that the real issue is that grown-ups are poisoned by a massive misconception that sexuality begins at thirty? Our anatomy, chemistry, and brains prepare us for sex in middle school. That’s not a dangerous cultural trend. That’s biology.

    I suspect that Jane was trying to direct as many complaints as possible against Ink Exchange because, like many adults, she’s uncomfortable with the fact that teens (even the young ones) have dirty sex thoughts.

  30. Rachael on #

    Silly? And crass? I didn’t see either of those things in this post. Thanks, Justine, for another smart, informative post, and kudos, as always, to Holly & Maureen for sticking up & saying smart things.

  31. lunamoth on #

    Lauren says:
    “Isn’t it possible that the real issue is that grown-ups are poisoned by a massive misconception that sexuality begins at thirty? Our anatomy, chemistry, and brains prepare us for sex in middle school. That’s not a dangerous cultural trend. That’s biology.”

    *ahem* Sorry. Similar discussion going on elsewhere in my life and you’ve captured what was thinking on that topic very well.

  32. Jane Henderson on #

    See’s book blog for a jargon-free explanation from a lawyer on how the term copyright infringement applies to book covers.

  33. KT Horning on #

    As I read it, the attorney Jane quoted on the STLToday Book Blog said exactly the same thing Justine said but in a lawyerly way — giving us a good example of his own original expression of the same idea.
    Here’s a direct link for anyone who wants it.

    As for the tattoo book cover example, as others have mentioned, a photographic cover of a part of someone’s body is all the rage in book jackets for kids these days. If a character in a book has a tattoo on her back, there are only so many ways it can be depicted by today’s artistic standards in a cover photograph. If the two tattoos themselves were exactly the same and in the same place on the similar-looking model wearing similar clothes and the photo was taken from the same angle, you might have a point.

  34. Kelly McCullough on #

    fixed the spelling at Wyrdsmiths, mea culpa.

  35. Ellen Kushner on #

    Great post (as always), great responses. Where did the Holly Black quote come from?

Comments are closed.