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Saturday Book Discussion: Plagiarism: It isn't what you think it is




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?



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  • Terminus, by Peter Clines

    A sequel to 14, in which the Great Old Ones arrive to eat the world. Kavach Press, 2020, 333 pages Murdoch’s past has finally come…

  • Burr, by Gore Vidal

    Aaron Burr in his own words... kind of. Random House, 1973, 430 pages Here is an extraordinary portrait of one of the most complicated -…

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