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.