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plagiarism
1. the verbatim copying or imitation of the language, ideas, or thoughts of another author and representing them as one’s own original work.
2. the material so appropriated. Also plagiary. — plagiarist, n. — plagiaristic, adj.
See also: Theft


Pet peeve: People calling borrowing, inspiration, or merely synchronistic use of ideas from another author "plagiarism."

Fact: There are no new ideas under the sun.



Before you think any story idea is original, Shakespeare probably did it 400 years ago, and he borrowed the shit out of previous writers and storytellers.

So, there are a lot of books with very similar ideas, themes, characters, plots. Sometimes this is deliberate, sometimes not. How many books are called "Twilight rip-offs" nowadays? But you know what? Ideas can't be copyrighted. Treatments of ideas can be, but if an idea could be copyrighted, no one could ever again write vampire romances, boy wizard stories, or epic fantasy with elves and orcs and Chosen Ones. (And the world would be a better place, but I digress.)

Now, that's not to say that an author who blatantly "borrows" an idea from another author in a cynical attempt to capture some of her popularity without adding anything new to the table isn't an unoriginal hack. So all those authors writing Young Adult romances about Magical Boyfriends? Unoriginal hacks. I mean, romance as a genre is formulaic as hell anyway. But then, so is a lot of space opera and epic fantasy and spy thrillers and... well, you get the idea.

Let's look at a few "stolen" ideas.

Harry Potter and the Dark Rising Books of Magic Muggles



Many, many people have accused Rowling of ripping them off. There's the loony-toons self-published writer who thinks that because she once wrote a children's book that used the word Muggles, Rowling ripped her off. There is author Jane Yolen, who said of Harry Potter:


I read the first three. The fourth one stopped me in my tracks, partially because even though the story moves along, I just don't feel like they're well written. Besides, I wrote a book called Wizard's Hall. And there's an awful lot of Wizard's Hall in it. I always tell people that if Ms. Rowling would like to cut me a very large check, I would cash it. [Wizard's Hall] has got a boy named Henry [who] goes to wizard school, doesn't think he has talent. He has a good friend with red hair. There's a wicked wizard who's trying to destroy the school, and the pictures on the wall move and speak and change. I have kids who write to me all the time and say, "I thought you had stolen Harry Potter, but my teacher pointed out that you published it eight years before Harry Potter."[1]


To Ms. Yolen, I say: lady, please. You were not the first children's author to write about a magical wizarding school. (Should Jill Murphy cash a very large check from you? Oh wait, she wasn't the first either.) Humble, self-deprecating protagonists are a mainstay of the genre. A wicked wizard? Who else would you expect to be the antagonist in a wizard story? And "Harry/Henry" and "a good friend with red hair" -- seriously? I mean, seriously, Jane Yolen, what do you suppose was Rowling's thought process here? "Hmm, this Wizard's Hall book is pretty good. I'll bet I could write the same story and just make it a little different. Obviously I have to change the main character's name. Henry => Harry; no one will ever know! But I like the red-headed best friend. I think I'll keep that."

(Never mind that red-headed sidekicks and protagonists have been so steeped in significance for so long that there is even a chapter about them in How to Read Literature Like a College Professor.)

Maybe Rowling was really ripping off Neil Gaiman?

Books of Magic

The parallels between Timothy Hunter and Harry Potter go far beyond their physical appearance, but Neil Gaiman (being a sensible adult) has said unequivocally that he and Rowling were merely "drinking from the same well."

But c'mon folks, it's obviously Susan Cooper that Rowling was stealing from.

The Dark is Rising

Will Stanton was the original boy wizard and Chosen One. Read the Dark is Rising sequence and the parallels will jump out at you. But it will also be abundantly evident that even if Rowling read Susan Cooper's books (and I'd be surprised if she hadn't), the similarities are eclipsed by the differences, and it's just silly to accuse her of imitating anyone. Did the Harry Potter books contain anything truly original in terms of plot, setting, themes, or characters? No. Neither did the Bible. People recycle stories because nearly every story ever told can be boiled down to a few basic variations.

The Long Battle Royale Hunger Games Walk



The Hunger Games

Battle Royale

So, a lot of people claim that Suzanne Collins ripped off Koushun Takami. I have read both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. They really aren't that much alike. Yes, they are both about a tyrannical government that gives teenagers a bunch of weapons and sends them into an arena to fight to the last one standing, while a televised audience watches. But that's like saying Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress are both about some misfit characters on a quest to rescue a princess. (In fact, Lucas rather explicitly copied a lot more elements from Kurosawa's film.)

Suzanne Collins has said she had never heard of Battle Royale when she wrote The Hunger Games. I don't disbelieve her. It's not as if the idea of a tyrannical government that makes kids compete in a there-can-be-only-one televised competition is hard to come up with. 'Cause hey, guess what, Stephen King did it before either of them.

King, writing as Richard Bachman, wrote The Long Walk in 1979. Takami cited it as one of his influences, so does that mean Takami was ripping off King? No, it means King planted the germ of an idea in his head. The Long Walk, like The Hunger Games, shares only that, a germ of an idea in common with Battle Royale. In fact, one of King's other Bachman novels, The Running Man, has a lot more in common with The Hunger Games and Battle Royale than The Long Walk does, even though The Running Man isn't about a game per se, and there's only one "competitor." (Put the Schwarzenegger movie out of your mind - it has fuck-all to do with King's story. One of the worst adaptations ever.)

So I boggle at people who think Collins was "obviously" ripping off Battle Royale, especially when most of them probably haven't even read Takami's novel. Even if Collins had read Takami's book first, and even if she had thought "Hey, that's a good idea, I think I'll come up with a similar story," it still wouldn't make her any different from any other author who has been inspired by something she read or saw by someone else, and it's very unlikely Takami would have a basis for claiming royalties from her even with such an admission. But like I said, having read both stories, it's just silly to claim direct imitation.

The Long Walk

King Does it Too



1408

Another one of King's short stories when he was writing as Richard Bachman was 1408. I just read it recently. (And the movie's not bad. But Samuel L. Jackson, I will still never forgive you for that POS, Snakes on a Plane!)

Thing is, when I was reading it, I kept thinking, "I've read this story before." In fact, I had a memory of my mother reading this story to me as a child. Which was impossible, because King wrote 1408 in 1999, and I'm... a little older than that.

After a little Googling, I found it. H.G. Wells' The Red Room. It's pretty much the exact same story, a hundred years earlier.

Amazingly, although I've found that other people have commented on the similarities, I can't find any record of Stephen King himself referring to it as an inspiration. He talks about 1408 in his book On Writing, but he never mentions Wells. King is a pretty well-read guy, and I'd be amazed if he'd never heard of The Red Room.

So, does his failure to credit his sources make him a copycat? Of course not. (And the fact that The Red Room is now in the public domain isn't even the issue.) King talks about all the other writers who have inspired him all the time, and when he's writing ghost stories and monster tales, of course he is borrowing from the entire history of that genre and everyone who wrote before him. Maybe he actually had H.G. Wells's short story in his head when he wrote 1408, maybe not, but it doesn't matter. Nobody can write anything without having other things they have read in their heads.

My point, I has one (two).



First, don't be so quick to accuse every story that's very similar to another story of being a case of "plagiarism." That's not to say authors don't sometimes shamelessly rip off other authors and do so in a derivative and ungracious fashion, but that's not what's happening every time there exist commonalities.

Second, be well-read. It's good to notice similarities, to realize "Hey, I've seen something like this before. Wonder if this author was thinking of that when she wrote this?" And it makes you sound like more of a smarty-pants when you can write book reviews that mention previous works that the current one is drawing upon. :)

And lastly, for a satirical yet disturbing view of what might happen if intellectual property laws should continue to run amok, everyone should read Spider Robinson's Melancholy Elephants.

Who's paying homage and who's a hack?



Got any thoughts?



Previous Saturday Book Discussions.

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( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
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admnaismith
Feb. 4th, 2012 05:19 pm (UTC)

I saw this on someone else's blog.
ebilgatoloco
Feb. 5th, 2012 01:21 am (UTC)
XD
hisietari
Feb. 4th, 2012 05:33 pm (UTC)
Coming from strict academic training, plagiarism is when somebody quotes somebody else without marking it. Period. However, if this happens in a novel, it's quite... well, rare, I hope, haha.

Whenever I think back to philosophy classes in school, the theory that nothing is ever really new comes up, and it's true. Writers get inspired, then write a story. My favourite kids books were a fleshed-out Russian fantasy saga based on the "Wizard of Oz" - and I prefer those books highly over the original. It's not plagiarism to me, even though the thing is so close, it's often called a "rather free Russian translation" of Baum's work. The result was a series of books though that were unique at the time, behind the Iron Curtain, and gave kids like me the chance to learn the skill of dreaming yourself away. They made me want to learn reading at a far younger age than usual, and maybe they even made me want to write back then.

Another funny little anecdote: My first-ever finished novel (I was 16 when I thought it up - thanks GOD that never found a publisher LOL) reads like an exact copy of the character relation setting in a published novel I found years later. Even the names of the respective characters are so similar, they rhyme. Now, I didn't read that published book until years later, and the author had no way whatsoever of torturing herself with my hormone-stuffed gibberish. Still, there are these huge similarities I can't explain, and they amuse me so much.
And Jung experts here? =P
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(no subject) - arysani - Feb. 4th, 2012 09:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - inverarity - Feb. 4th, 2012 09:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - arysani - Feb. 4th, 2012 10:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
l_o_lostshadows
Feb. 4th, 2012 05:43 pm (UTC)
I think there's a line between accusing someone of "ripping off" a work and accusing them of plagiarism. A number of books do seem to get written and published because they're similar to something that's selling well. It's not plagiarism, but "clearly inspired by _____'s book sales", seems a legitimate criticism.

I think the worst case of ripping off another work I've read was Angels & Demons and The DaVinci Code. Reading them pretty much back-to-back made it pretty obvious Dan Brown couldn't be bothered to think up a new plot.
indigo_mouse
Feb. 5th, 2012 03:05 am (UTC)
Who was he ripping off? I just think that Dan Brown only has one plot and he just changes the setting and the character's names... I remember reading a book of his (not finishing it) and then when I started The DaVinci Code I thought... wait, I have read this before. Then I realized that the two books had the same author. Not plagiarism after all.
(no subject) - l_o_lostshadows - Feb. 5th, 2012 04:23 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - indigo_mouse - Feb. 5th, 2012 04:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - count_fenring - Feb. 5th, 2012 06:41 am (UTC) - Expand
anthonyjfuchs
Feb. 4th, 2012 05:45 pm (UTC)
I did an epic spit-take when I read the phrase "Twilight rip-offs." How do you rip off a rip-off?

I spent more than thirteen years writing my first novel. But from `2008 to `2010, I didn't write a single word of that story, because in April of `2008, I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time and nearly lit my own manuscript on fire. The plot of my novel was strikingly similar to the plot of Salinger's work, and I actually wrote myself a note at the bottom of my manuscript: "Salinger did it better." I was so disillusioned by that discovery that I didn't work on my own project for more than two years.

But eventually I figured out that elemental truth of literature: every story has been told, and probably better than I will be able to tell it. Catcher is a classic bildungsroman, though today it's probably the quintessential American example. It's This Side of Paradise and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and David Copperfield. It's Candide. I wasn't ripping off Salinger: as Gaiman said of Rowling, I was merely taking a sip from the same well. Or in the parlance of Stephen King by way of Scott Landon: I simply went down to the same pool to cast my net.

Whether I manage to cook my catch as well as Salinger cooked his, or Fitzgerald or Clemens or Dickens or Voltaire cooked theirs before him, remains to be seen.
marycatelli
Feb. 5th, 2012 12:22 am (UTC)
With ease. This is how notions get more and more diluted when they get further and further from the original genius.
smeddley
Feb. 4th, 2012 06:14 pm (UTC)
How can you talk about plagiarism and not mention Cassie Edwards and her lines of ferret-related dialog?! Best case ever - who would think to rip-off chunks of text from wildlife guides and pass them off in romance novels?
inverarity
Feb. 4th, 2012 08:50 pm (UTC)
I thought of adding a section on Cassandra Clare, but I didn't because (a) I haven't actually read her books (or her fan fiction) and don't really like to write in my usual peremptory judgmental fashion about works I haven't really read; and (b) done to death, done to death, so, so done to death.
(no subject) - im_writing - Feb. 5th, 2012 04:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
kith_koby
Feb. 4th, 2012 06:15 pm (UTC)
Hmmm... Well, often, children pay homage. Ed Greenwood created the Forgotten Realms as a child. And while there are many similarities to LotR, it's obviously homage. Of course, the whole high fantasy genre is overloaded without even getting into the generic D&D book, so...

As a better example, there's Coronets and Steel, by Sherwood Smith. An excellent book, but an obvious homage to Prisoner of Zenda, which was the main inspiration for it (Sherwood actually explicitly says it, and the main character is often looking for comparisons with Prisoner of Zenda).

Most of MAGICAL BOYFRIEND BOOKS seem hacks to me, but I'm not sure if that's because they are or if it's simply because the material is so badly written and so easy to become similar to.
calico_reaction
Feb. 4th, 2012 06:23 pm (UTC)
When I review, I try to make a point about noting publication dates and making sure that readers know how timelines work when it comes to writing and publishing, and that often, authors draw from the same creative unconscious. That doesn't mean I won't stop reading a book if I feel I've read it before in a different setting but same kernel of an idea (see Archon by Sabrina Benulis when I realized it had the same kernel as N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms; they are utterly different beside basic idea fueling story, but I preferred Jemisin's so much I couldn't continue the Benulis.), and also, sometimes my opinion of a book has dropped after reading something that I feel is obvious the latter author had to be inspired by (in the case of Matched by Ally Condie clearly being heavily inspired by The Giver by Lois Lowry.

What I think I'd want in those latter cases (and like the case you mention between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale) is for the latter authors to have an FAQ on their website and just address the issue. Be it, "Oh yes, I was totally inspired by SIMILIAR WORK, but wanted to take a different angle and do THIS" or "Nope, haven't read it, never heard of it until reviews started comparing my book to said previous work" or even, "Yep. I've read it." Just knowing that the latter author is aware would make all the difference in the world in my mind, because then it's up to me to believe or disbelieve the author. Kind how Stephenie Meyer swears she wasn't familiar with vampire fiction when she wrote Twilight. After reading Interview with a Vampire (whiny vampire protag) and the Sookie Stackhouse series, I have a hard time believing her. But that's my prerogative, and not a case of accusing her of plagiarism. :)

Great post!
little_e_
Feb. 4th, 2012 07:35 pm (UTC)
Lovely post.

I'm sure my position is obvious. Personally, I don't care if a work is based on another--I think the world is a better place because their books are available for those who want them. I think the world is a better place for all of the fanfiction, for all of the Harry Potter-inspired art (haven't we all seen some lovely pieces?) for all of the Youtube fan-videos and internet memes and mashups and so on and so forth. Even if Nabokov copied Lolita, WHO CARES? His version was better.


I do think people should give credit when it's due (and non-obvious). That's just polite. But people should also realize that we all live in the same culture and are surrounded by the same ideas. It would be impossible not to get ideas from others--nor would it be good to try. Culture is constantly telling and re-telling the same stories over and over, but we enjoy it because each storyteller adds their own voice, twist, or insight.


Did Tolkien copy Wagner? Who cares!
temporaryworlds
Feb. 4th, 2012 08:46 pm (UTC)
Nice post. I too have to roll my eyes at all of the "plagiarism!" knee jerk reactions, especially when they come from people unfamiliar with the works their commenting on. An author (either subconsciously, or consciously) can be inspired by another work without venturing into the category of
plagiarism.

Granted, real plagiarism does happen from time to time, and it's always kind of disturbing when it does. The one instance that really sticks out to me was Kaavya Viswanathan, who was accused of plagiarizing works such as Megan McCaffrey's Jessica Darling series, and Tanuja Desai Hidier's Born Confused in her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. It's one thing to mine the same cavern of character tropes, it's another to pull passages from another book and reword it a little bit. The author claimed that all similarities were unintentional, and I suspect, unintentional or not, it was just a mistake made by a teenager that probably wasn't ready to be a published author. Still, the whole thing was quite disturbing. I remember they were going to make a movie out of the book, and instead they ended up pulling all of the copies from the shelves in stores and destroying them.
alicetheowl
Feb. 4th, 2012 10:13 pm (UTC)
Way back in high school, my teacher distilled ALL stories down to 3 plots: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self. Each book we read that year, we analyzed for which of these very simple stories it drew from, and we started with The Odyssey.

I'm often surprised to find out other people didn't learn literature this way, because it was the best way for my young mind to become hungry for different ways of saying the same things. All books share similarities, and all books have some level of predictability, because if you bring stuff in out of left field, people throw it at a wall in disgust.

I don't like the current Magical Boyfriend trend, but what bothers me about it is that it's an update of the alpha male trend that I don't like about romance novels. Lucky for me, they're coded to find easily, and so I can easily avoid them, and there are LOTS of other books coming out that I am interested in.

I don't worry about plagiarism unless I see explicit sentence-for-sentence comparisons.
hermione_vader
Feb. 4th, 2012 11:25 pm (UTC)
I believe my sophomore year English teacher taught us that, too. I had forgotten actually learning it, but it's a good way to be reminded that everything comes back to the same universal themes, which why cynics claim "everything is the same." Basically, I agree with everything you said.

Why are there no Magical Girlfriend book? That puzzles me because a distaff counterpart usually emerges (like Action Hero-->Action Heroine), but that hasn't happened here. Maybe we'll have to wait fifty years...
(no subject) - alicetheowl - Feb. 4th, 2012 11:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
hermione_vader
Feb. 4th, 2012 11:09 pm (UTC)
I think separating the hacks out comes down to this: is anything in the newer book memorable (in a good way)? Was there a particularly enjoyable character or part of the world/mythos? If not, then they're probably just cashing in.
marycatelli
Feb. 4th, 2012 11:10 pm (UTC)
There's another choice between homage and hack. Filing the serial numbers. (Which I go on and on and on about here.)
lunacorva
Feb. 4th, 2012 11:16 pm (UTC)
Your speech actually reminded me of a quote I read once:

"Creativity is not about inventing entirely new colours. Rather, it is about combining and altering existing colours in new and entertaining ways."
cweb
Feb. 5th, 2012 01:13 am (UTC)
I certainly agree that there is nothing new under the sun.

I actually thought the Hunger Games was based on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Mary Renault wrote a couple of excellent novels about the story:
The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea in the late fifties/early sixties.

The Harry Potter novels seemed to be a fun mish-mash of every magical cliche and Roald Dahl.
cweb
Feb. 5th, 2012 01:21 am (UTC)
Of those I think did borrow...and far to freely for comfort, were:

The Sword of Shannarra by Terry Brooks (plot-wise and character-wise almost identical to Lord of the Rings)

The Ladies of Missalonghi by Collen Mcullough (awfully close to The Blue Castle for the first half of the book)
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