On Ideas, Repetitiveness and Copyright Infringement

It’s such an interesting change of pace here at Smart Bitches: for once, Sarah is the one getting all cussy and indignant, and I’m the one who’s feeling more mellow and contemplative.

One of the more irritating yet predictable reactions I’ve seen after the whole Cassie Edwards kerfuffle has been the idea that because it concerned romance novels, the issues surrounding unattributed usage don’t matter because, hey, romance novels are recycled drivel to begin with. They’re all the same, anyway, the argument goes; How can you even tell one of them has copied another book? None of them express a single original thought.

I saw this in an extended slapfight in one of the many, many comment threads when the Edwards story first broke (I can’t, alas, remember which thread it was), in which some clueless twat attempted to claim that all romance novels plagiarized to one extent or another (OH EM GEE THE UNORIGINALITY IT BURNSES US PRECIOUSSSSS). And I saw it again when I read Jane Henderson’s comment (“In the romance genre, it’s sometimes hard to tell one author from the next”) on Urban Fantasy Land.

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.”)

“An angst-ridden story in a contemporary setting about a vampire warrior with superfluous Hs in his name falling in love with a human woman who eventually heals his pain.”
You guys know exactly what I’m talking about now, but really, it’s entirely conceivable that somebody, absent any influence from JR Ward, might write a vampire romantic comedy about a vampire named Hhoratio who used to be a warrior but is now a chartered accountant for Dark Yet Comic Reasons falling in love with the babe in IT, who, as it turns out, is a former superhero but turned to systems administration to hide from her Dark Yet Comic past. (I suppose you can circumvent the germ thing if you insist only on newly-minted gold coins. Still sounds horribly painful, though. Gold is heavy, and hard compared to our tender, tender flesh.)

And going back to an old point I’ve made: Yanking plots, plot elements and ideas may not be illegal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ethically in the clear. Novelty of ideas is paramount in academic research, which is why using somebody’s framework or idea without acknowledgment is a form of plagiarism. Fiction, however, has a lot more leeway. Academic research is concerned with exploring a new idea, refuting an old one or expanding on the body of knowledge of an existing one; fiction is more about grabbing an idea, making the idea your little bitch and creating an entertaining story along the way. Not to say there haven’t been books that were rip-offs, but you have to work a lot harder before people legitimately cry foul. So yes, that means plots and premises sometimes become repetitive. It can sometimes mean they share significant elements in common. But fiction is about the individual re-working and expression of those ideas; God is quite literally in the details for this one. Henderson, in my opinion, was over-reaching juuuuuust a tad in her statement that Marr’s work was a knock-off of Hamilton’s

Fairies who Fuck

Merry Gentry series; God knows her assertions made the article much more scandalous. I mean, seriously, if we’re going to say “books about human females being tempted by fairies” is an idea unique enough to engender infringement issues, J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate might as well sue every high fantasy novel, ever.

In fact, I came up with a table showing you how repetitious plots and premises can get in fiction. It’s by no means comprehensive—I got tired partway through (and I also didn’t bother covering mysteries, horror or SF)—but I think you get the idea.

Title and Author Basic Premise/Plot Genre
Something Wonderful by Judith McNaught Plucky young miss shows jaded aristocrat the meaning of love, and proves to him that Not All Women Are Evil Romance
Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase Plucky miss shows jaded aristocrat the meaning of love, and proves to him that Not All Women Are Evil Romance
Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas Plucky miss shows jaded low-born gambler the meaning of love, and proves to him that Not All Women Are Evil Romance
The Windflower by Laura London Innocent young miss (who becomes plucky…eventually…sort of) shows jaded aristocrat the meaning of love, and proves to him that Not All Women Are Evil Romance
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien A plucky group of ragtag misfits defeat Evil and thus save the world. The short ones provide occasional comic relief. The world is forever changed. Fantasy
The Belgariad series by David Eddings A plucky group of ragtag misfits defeat Evil and thus save the world. The short ones provide occasional comic relief. The world is forever changed. Fantasy
The Dragonlance series by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman A plucky group of ragtag misfits defeat Evil and thus save the world. The short ones provide occasional comic relief. The world is forever changed. Fantasy
Most of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis A plucky group of ragtag misfits defeat Evil and thus save the world. The short ones provide occasional comic relief. The world is forever changed. Fantasy
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White Scrawny, gormless boy enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually finds out that he’s actually King Children’s Fantasy
Stardust by Neil Gaiman Scrawny, gormless boy enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually finds out that he’s actually King Fantasy
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman Scrawny, gormless man enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually finds out that he’s actually the Hunter Fantasy
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series by Tad Williams Scrawny, gormless boy enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually helps restore the throne of the rightful King Fantasy
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens Scrawny, gormless boy enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually triumphs over adversity Dead White Dude fiction
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens Scrawny, gormless boy enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually triumphs over adversity Dead White Dude fiction
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens Scrawny, gormless boy enjoys a series of wacky adventures and eventually triumphs over adversity Dead White Dude fiction
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert A woman dares to make the mistake of evincing sexual desire and unconventionality, the punishment for which is death Dead White Dude fiction
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy A woman dares to make the mistake of evincing other people’s sexual desire, the punishment for which is death Dead White Dude fiction
The Awakening by Kate Chopin A woman dares to make the mistake of evincing sexual desire and unconventionality, the punishment for which is death Dead White Woman fiction
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen Holy shit, this family is fucked up, and I can’t look away Literary fiction
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy Holy shit, this family is fucked up, and I can’t look away Dead White Dude fiction
Music for Torching by A.M. Homes Holy shit, this family is fucked up, and I can’t look away Literary fiction
As You Like It by William Shakespeare Two couples attempt to sort out love amidst various hijinks. Cross-dressing ensues. He’s motherfucking Shakespeare. He doesn’t need a motherfucking genre classification.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare Two couples attempt to sort out love amidst various hijinks. Cross-dressing ensues. He’s motherfucking Shakespeare. He doesn’t need a motherfucking genre classification.
Shadow Dance by Anne Stuart Two couples attempt to sort out love amidst various hijinks. Cross-dressing ensues. Romance
The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer Two couples attempt to sort out love amidst various hijinks. Cross-dressing ensues. Romance
Categorized:

Random Musings

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Manon says:
    2+

    Hi, I kind of love you.

    [captcha: fiscal18.  Going back to that swimming pool idea…]

  2. 2
    Chryssa says:
    1+

    Excellent.  Point well-made, Candy.

    It reinforces what I’ve heard a number of agents say … agent interest is caught when authors find a way to twist a standard premise.  Success is also in the execution.

    Chryssa

  3. 3
    Jia says:
    1+

    That chart is brilliant.

    I’d also put forth that Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time will fit into the “A plucky group of ragtag misfits defeat Evil and thus save the world. The short ones provide occasional comic relief. The world is forever changed” category once it’s completed.

  4. 4
    DS says:
    1+

    I’m amazed this even had to be said.  My sf teacher in the mid 70’s had us combing various sf books looking for the themes that fit into Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces—I think now we were doing unpaid research for his thesis.  One thing it taught me though was the power of repetition (not mimicry) when respectfully done.  It also lead to one memorable argument when I insisted I knew who Luke Skywalker’s father was based on Lucas’ handling of the hero mythos. 

    AFAIK no one has compiled anything like HWATF for the Heroine, but from what I’ve read in cross cultural folklore, all of the bits would be present, just dressed differently—after all Cinderella’s glass slipper was originally gold in the Chinese version—which would I think have been no less uncomfortable if less dangerous than glass shoes.

  5. 5
    Bonnie says:
    1+

    Love the graph. So true.

    Brings to mind the Bible verse, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, NIV)

    Dudes, if you wanna do a study look at all the themes from the Bible, and how *they’ve* been ripped off by every author from the dawn of the printed word!

    — Bonz

    PS: Maybe off topic, but concerning the CE kerfuffle … what’s happened? Did she get her knuckles slapped? Will there be *any* kind of punishment?? Haven’t heard anything further and makes me wonder after all the heated arguments and discussions, what exactly was the end result??

  6. 6
    L.C.McCabe says:
    1+

    Candy,

    I loved your chart. ‘Twas loverly.

    Especially the Dead White Dude category. I consider most of the History taught in schools as being little more than the knowledge of Dead White Men Who Fought and When and Where They Died.

    D.S. In regards to the Heroine’s Journey, the classic mythology for women is not the same as the HWATF construct. It is more like the story of Eros and Psyche. Different construct entirely.

    Linda

  7. 7
    Carrie Lofty says:
    1+

    Motherfucking Shakespeare. I’d be his groupie.

  8. 8
    Lee says:
    1+

    Love the chart. I actually laughed out loud.

  9. 9
    1+

    Candy, you totally rock.

    And I echo what DS said…I’m amazed it had to be said.

    But you said it so bloody cleverly I want to kiss you.

  10. 10
    Ziggy says:
    1+

    Love this. It’s made of awesome.

    I totally agree. There are only a few basic plots in the world. It’s all about the treatment, and what the writer is trying to say about love or the human condition or whatever. The plot is just a vehicle for all that.

    “appear76”—> wow, better break out the wrinkle cream.

  11. 11
    Kalen Hughes says:
    1+

    I lurve me some Candy.

  12. 12
    R. says:
    1+

    Thanks for the coffee-snort, Candy!

    DS spake thusly:
    AFAIK no one has compiled anything like HWATF for the Heroine, but from what I’ve read in cross cultural folklore, all of the bits would be present, just dressed differently—after all Cinderella’s glass slipper was originally gold in the Chinese version—which would I think have been no less uncomfortable if less dangerous than glass shoes.

    DS, there’s The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock, that she was inspired to research and compose after a rather unsatisfactory discussion with Joseph Campbell.  There’s also From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner, regarding women’s roles in fairytales, as subjects/objects, and as the tellers of the tales.

  13. 13
    1+

    Awesome chart, Candy.  Truly, you shall rock the halls of jurisprudence!

  14. 14
    snarkhunter says:
    1+

    I met a crazy, poorly groomed woman this summer who said she was going to write a book on the heroine’s journey. Unfortunately, she was, as I said, crazy (she was wearing a tiara and the Evenstar, which wasn’t *that* weird, since we were at a Harry Potter conference, but she said it was what she usually dressed like), poorly groomed (she had a mustache *and* a burgeoning goatee, and oh, how I wish I were kidding), and also unwilling to do her research. (I said that if you want to write about the heroine’s journey in modern fantasy lit, you have to read His Dark Materials. And you really, really do. She was more than a little resistant.)

  15. 15
    snarkhunter says:
    1+

    Hm. My last comment makes me look like the queen of the judgey mcjudgersons, so I must add that I might have found the crazy lady a lovely person, had she not been one of those people who randomly attaches herself to a group of strangers, and proceeds to talk about herself incessantly, with no regard for the flow of the conversation and others’ input.

    Anyway. Candy, you are the Goddess of the Comparison Table. You know that, right?

  16. 16
    1+

    Okay, so I haven’t always seen eye to eye with you, I’m a good friend of Gail Northman’s (always was, always will be) but I’ve got to say –
    Respect.
    Good post.

  17. 17
    1+

    It seems both a weird and unfortunate thing that so much of CE’s plagiarism is confused with a) real research of information and b) genuine honest re-workings of prior ideas.

  18. 18
    Meriam says:
    1+

    Hi, I kind of love you.

    Heh, I was going to say this before I saw you beat me to it, Manon.

    What’s up with fantasy writers and short people?

  19. 19
    Teddy Pig says:
    1+

    Thank god for people ripping off ideas in Science fiction.

    Half my favorite TV shows would have been dead and dull.

    Most of the stylish elements in stories would never have been perfected past H.G. Wells.

    I think the point is make the idea work better, make the idea shine, give it a different spin and I don’t care.

  20. 20
    Kimberly Anne says:
    1+

    I read The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock a while back, and I have to say, I was a little disappointed.  It’s clearly well-written, but the focus was too narrow for my taste.  It focuses on the journey of a heroine who denies her feminine side in order to succeed in a man’s world, and then must heal the wound that caused. 

    One of the ideas I remember most clearly was the heroine’s choice of the father as the parent to emulate, to the point of denigrating the mother and all she stands for – specifically, those traits seen as inherently female (gentleness, passivity, nurturance, etc.).  Murdock says at one point that the heroine takes on the hero’s journey by making this choice.  The heroine’s journey only begins when she sees this as a mistake and works to repair the damage.

    I was frustrated by the lack of attention paid to the journey of women who do not put aside their femininity in order to succeed.  It is a complicated and heroic task for a woman to individuate herself, no matter if she affiliates to her father or her mother.  It is not any easier for a woman to escape from the shadow of her mother than it is the shadow of her father.

    *breathes deeply and shakes head*

    Sorry.  Rant over.

  21. 21
    R. says:
    1+

    Murdock’s work is no more complete or all-encompassing than Campbell’s—both have all kinds of holes in them that individuals seeking wisdom and self-knowledge have to fill for themselves. 

    It’s a journey, all the same, and YMMV— 🙂

    But both studies are good jumping-off points into further and deeper explorations into the nature of the human spirit, regardless of sex or gender identification.

  22. 22
    Silver James says:
    1+

    I had a professor in college who insisted that there only three original plots in literature and two of them were the Iliad and the Odyssey. When I went looking for who originally said this (yay for Google), I discovered that my professor wasn’t the only one. This discussion (and I hope my coding skills are up to par to make the link work) by Richard Young on a creative writing site pretty much sums up the topic.

    Candy, I <3 you! You are my heroine, you smart bitch, you!

  23. 23
    talpianna says:
    1+

    Wonderful piece, Candy.  But I disagree on one point—Oliver Twist’s got gorm!

    For a more feminist orientation in interpreting myth and story, try Jung’s disciple Marie-Louise von Franz or oral-tradition expert Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

    All these people who speak contemptuously of romance remind me of the women who say “I’m not a feminist” but then, when asked, express support for basic feminist issues like equal pay for equal work, Roe v. Wade, the ERA, rape shield laws, and so on.

    men71—women128 —final score

  24. 24
    R. says:
    1+

    Thanks for those leads, talpianna—checking into them, now.

    Feminist?  Yep, that’s me.

  25. 25
    jessica says:
    1+

    I totally agree. Give me a new twist on an old plot and I’m there. Amazing that this has to be said. Love the chart. All about charts.

  26. 26
    Miranda says:
    1+

    ” from JR Ward, might write a vampire romantic comedy about a vampire named Hhoratio who used to be a warrior but is now a chartered accountant for Dark Yet Comic Reasons falling in love with the babe in IT”

    Could someone write this book? Now?

  27. 27
    1+

    Yanno, even though you didn’t list it there, I think you finally named a category that Flowers In The Attic fits into—Holy shit, this family is fucked up, and I can’t look away—because damn am I tired of seeing it shelved in romance.  WHAT THE FUCK.  That is not a romance!!!

    *deep breaths*

    Yes, I read it when I was about 13, and it fucked me up like damn.  I was afraid to so much as hug my brother for a year or so.

  28. 28
    Mora says:
    1+

    You should add everything Terry Brooks has ever written to the “plucky group of ragtag misfits defeat Evil and thus save the world” category.

  29. 29
    1+

    You said this beautifully—well, hilariously, really.

    As another author of fairy fiction that—like Melissa—relies heavily on traditional fairy lore, it irritates the snot out of me when people comment that two fairy novels are the same. No more similar than any other modern reimaginings of old legends are. Grrr!

    Still, I think no harm done—the fact of the matter is that no one who was going to pick up Ink Exchange would be dissuaded by reading that article.

  30. 30
    Sally says:
    1+

    That chart?  Yes, it was definitely good for me.  Thanks for the chuckle…

  31. 31
    toni says:
    1+

    Dead White Dude fiction. Geez, I laughed out loud. This chart is perfect.

  32. 32
    Teddy Pig says:
    1+

    I have had it with this motherfucking Shakespeare in this motherfucking Romance!

  33. 33
    1+

    Liquid awesome, Candy. You’re my hero.

    *still giggling at motherfucking Shakespeare not needing a motherfucking classification…

  34. 34
    Trix says:
    1+

    Robert Jordan died a few months back, so alas, for some (including jia, it seems), he won’t be able to complete the WoT saga. Of course, given how people keep buying them and how vastly profitable the franchise is, I imagine it’ll be farmed out for someone else to fill in the generic “band of misfits saves the world” plots.

    Nice going Candy, for pinning down the “clueless boy learning l33t skills, coming-of-age and finding he’s king/wizard/whatever” origins.I was talking about just that today, and couldn’t figure out where it started (ragtag misfits saving the world – ding ding, thank you Tolkien… or even Homer, kinda).

    The Belgariad falls into that “ignorant boy growing up” genre too. Mind you, all of Eddings’ books (that I’ve read) are paint-by-numbers fantasy, and he seems proud of the analysis he did of the genre to catapult him into best-selling author territory. There’s retelling old tales, or putting new twists and turns in… and then there is regurgitating them ad nauseum.

    Dead White Dude fiction cracked me up. I notice there’s no category (I realise they’re not exhaustive) for “sensitive female has vague semi-explained trauma and emotes in a stream-of-consciousness”, mainly, of course, because such fiction generally doesn’t have a story. It apparently has Narrative though.

  35. 35
    Nora Roberts says:
    1+

    Joining the chorus to say I love this.

    It should be a workshop on creative writing.

  36. 36
    Jules Jones says:
    1+

    Trix: Robert Jordan put together a lot of notes on his plans for the last couple of volumes, specifically so that if he didn’t make it, someone else could finish the series as he’d envisaged it. Not just as a “crank it out” exercise, but effectively as a collaboration. He got all but the last book written himself, and the last one will be written from his notes and partial draft.

  37. 37
    Eirin says:
    1+

    from JR Ward, might write a vampire romantic comedy about a vampire named Hhoratio who used to be a warrior but is now a chartered accountant for Dark Yet Comic Reasons falling in love with the babe in IT

    Don’t you mean ahccounthant?
    But I agree with Miranda, this book needs to be written ;>

  38. 38
    Michele says:
    1+

    >Holy shit, this family is fucked up, and I can’t look away<

    That bit just made me laugh out loud. Thanks, that was better than the comics this morning.

  39. 39
    Christine says:
    1+

    Love the chart, but I would have liked to have seen some mystery tossed in there. Mystery readers/writers are a crowd who believe they are above the label of trashy or mainstream or anything that would give them the pulp fiction stamp.

    Male mystery writers especially.

    Mystery books are probably the most rehashed books out there. Detective solves the case. Policeman solves the case. Doctor solves the case. For any number of murders done any number of ways. It still is: crime committed, investigation ensues, crime solved. Nothing exciting there, if you ask me.

    If anything, I think romance and mystery are *very* similar in their mechanics. With a romance we know there will be a happy ending. Just like with a mystery we know the crime will be solved. There is no ‘surprise’ or expectation that the book will turn out any differently than that. But what makes romance and mystery *good* is the part in the middle…how you get to the end. That is where the surprise comes in.

    By the way, I would classify GREAT EXPECTATIONS as a romance…you left out that part! That book made me cry, not because of the boy triumphed over adversity, but because of what he learned about love.

  40. 40
    Nicola Slade says:
    1+

    Just stumbled across this plagiarism thing and wonder if you ever came across the following instance. Years ago, 10-15 years probably, there was a fuss reported in the British press. A fan had written to a celebrated author. Did he know there was a Mills & Boon romance out that closely resembled one of his novels?
    Cue panic at the publishers plus assorted articles in the press. Romance writer’s contract discontinued, ‘serious’ writer vindicated.
    But…but…but… it turned out that BOTH writers had taken their plots from an Elizabeth Gaskell novel and the romance writer was telling the truth when she insisted she had never read the ‘serious’ novel. Did the romance writer get an apology? Did she get her contract renewed?
    I’ve no idea but I doubt it, after all she was ‘only’ writing romances.
    I write romantic comedy (Scuba Dancing, published Transita Ltd) and now cozy crime (Murder Most Welcome, Robert Hale, May 2008). It’s amazing how many people are prepared to admire me for getting published, only to backtrack when they hear the word ‘romantic’!

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