Friday, July 17, 2009

Stolen Ideas

How Publishing Really Works is throwing an anti-plagiarism day today.

Plagiarism is easy to spot and prosecute when actual wording has been lifted from another work, but stealing characters, plot structure, and ideas is a gray and murky area.

Obviously some ideas, like "a kid who finds out he has special powers and has to go away to school to learn about them", are general enough that nobody's stealing from any particular source when they write yet another one of these. And there's no question literature is rife with repeated tropes and deliberate allusion. That's all ok.

But then there are the cases where there's really no question where the ideas came from... and no sense the author expected you to make the connection. I can think of a particular author's characters who have shown up more than once in other books... with no indication that it was "an homage" of any kind.

Over and over I get asked about the danger of writers' ideas being stolen at publishing houses, and I roll my eyes, because it's not a danger at all.
And because when it comes to stealing ideas, as heartbreaking as it is, the danger (though still not so common) is most likely to come from other writers.

11 comments:

Deirdre Mundy said...

Thanks for the link, EA! The Ferrets totally made my day!!

Alina said...

I'm so curious about who the "particular author" is.

Jane Smith said...

Thank you for joining in with the anti-plagiarism theme today: it's most appreciated. I'm still amazed by how many people have picked this up and blogged about it!

Yat-Yee said...

The writers I know, online and in real life, have been so generous and professional it's kinda sad.

Paul Michael Murphy said...

This is probably a dumb question, but how is it that anyone who has ever watched a Star Wars movie is allowed to write Star Wars books? The things are all over the place.

Anonymous said...

The more I think about it, the less sure I am that I really know what this means. One writer's characters appearing in other writer's book--I dunno. Rowling wasn't the first to write a young orphaned boy who discovered he's a wizard and went off the school. She isn't the first to write one with that personality, either (to the extent that Harry Potter actually -had- a personality).

But because her plots were her own--completely derivative, but still her own--I don't think you can say that Harry is 'someone else's character.' You can't really disentangle plot and character to that extent.

And there are types. The downtrodden housewife, the alcoholic cop, the chick. I guess I'm just not sure where the line is, here. I'd say that 80% of the chick-lit novels I've read--including many of the best!--starred some version of Bridget Jones. Every book with a hot girl in tight leather pants and a dagger on the title features Anita Blake. And poor exhausted Philip Marlowe ...

Becky Mushko said...

Thanks for the link. Since the Cassie Edwards (Ferrets!) plagiarism hit the fan, I've picked up a couple of her books at used book sales. It's fun to skim through (the plots in the Secretare essentially the same—hot prairie chick meets hunky native American/torrid scenes ensue/etc.) and pick out the plagiarized parts that are so different in style from her usual narrative.

I can see where plagiarism can happen in romance novels, but does much occur in children's literature? Well, aside from the occasional Harry Potter and Stephanie Meyers rip-off attempts.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Anon 6:48:
In terms of stealing characters, you're right that a single similar character in more than one author's writing is bound to happen organically.

But the example I was thinking of features a whole cast of characters, including pets. That's no damn coincidence.

Let's say, for instance, that Egmont's new book Leaving the Bellweathers features (1) an egomaniacal father figure who prizes his creativity, is prone to apoplectic rages and yelling about the bills, and has a running feud with the housekeeper (2) an ethereally beautiful but mentally abstracted artist mother figure who is inanely and comically unaware of the daily catastrophes around her (3) a hellion orange cat (4) a child / children who are surprisingly precocious, cherubically innocent-looking, and destructive enough to be her/their own natural disaster (5) other child / children with whole sets of eccentric interests, which include self-motivated interests in school topics like languages, math, instruments, painting, and computers, and all of which manage to contribute to the daily clangor and chaos of the household (6) a bizzarely long-suffering housekeeper who does nothing but whinge.

And now let's say there's another book with that same set of characters. What then?

Anonymous said...

It happened to me. I'm an illustrator. A "friend" lifted my character, compositions in sequence and some of the author's words. In fact, this "friend" lifted many of my art works and is dumb enough to blog it. But it doesn't take an clear thinking person to steal in the first place. "Friend" was pretty snarky about our friendship (?) when called on it. Publisher was upset, did nothing. PS prefer to be anonymous and glad people are taking a stand.

Confessor said...

This might be a little off-topic but I was wondering if having a character inspired on a real-life celebrity would hurt my chances becoming published?

Anonymous said...

And then there's Emily the Strange/Nate the Great thing. So sad.