Ripping Ideas Off

(sorry for the late post)

Yes, you read that right. Authors are stealing ideas from works of the past and changing them, making them their own by putting their own twist on it. Oh, woe!

Since this has been happening for as long as people have been writing (and being published), I really don’t see the avenue people are trying to take when they cry foul after another author writes a story which may be similar to something someone else had already written. I, for one, did not flip out after I saw that John Scalzi took a concept I alluded to in Corruptor and ran with it in his latest work, Locked In. I don’t own the idea of a virtual reality being used in books (and I’d be stupid to try and claim it, since Neil Stephenson did something similar awhile back in this little book you may have heard of, called Snow Crash), and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to try to claim it anyways, because stifling ideas and trying to claim tropes is a Bad Thing (TM).

You see what I did there?

Part of the complete and utter coolness of being an author is taking some random idea and putting your own spin on it. Seriously, seeing something done and then putting your own spin on it stretches back to the time of Shakespeare and before (probably). So for anyone to try to claim an idea and say that nobody else can write it is, well, absurd. An author can copyright their characters, for example, and names of fictional lands. But for an author to claim, oh, Shakespeare himself as their own creation is on a lot of illicit drugs. Tropes are there for a reason, and it’s absurd to think that any one author can claim a trope.

Yes, a trope. You may have heard of them? They’re those things that people use with regularity and nobody bats an eye because we expect it. Kind of how in the old Star Trek series, if your name is Ensign Bob, you wear a redshirt and you are going on an away mission with Kirk, McCoy and Spock, the odds of your imminent death are at about 100%. Tropes are fun to play with and play against, and for anyone trying to claim a type of trope as their own is… well, you see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

So I ask you, gentle reader (hah!!!) — what sort of person tries to copyright a trope that they did not originally create, and attack anyone who wants to put their own spin on a trope they themselves have borrowed from elsewhere?

Probably the same kind of person who is totally cool with predatory contracts, if you ask me.

Look, authors typically aren’t going to try and stab each other in the back. We usually are trying to help other writers out because, deep down, we’re all fans of reading, and if someone new comes along and can tell a story, does it really matter if their tropes borrow the basis of ideas from other places? As much grief as I give Stephanie Meyer about sparkly vampires, it’s still a different take on a bloodsucking parasitical creature of evil (I have my own opinions of the vampire community, and I do believe the words “stake tartar” comes to mind) and one she did well enough to parlay that into enough money to do whatever she wants for the rest of her life. She played on a trope (seductive vampire) and targeted the YA and female audience, much like Anne Rice did in the late 80’s to mid 90’s. Did Anne Rice threaten to sue Meyers for “stealing” the trope of seductive vampires? I doubt it. Did the previous writers of British boarding school novels try to sue J. K. Rowling for using that trope to write Harry Potter (thanks for reminding me of this example, Sarah)? Heck no. They probably saw an uptick in sales from readers looking for something akin to Harry Potter when the series started to get popular (see Charlie Bone and Artemis Fowl for examples).

Tropes are there for us all to twist and play with. So don’t be a jerk and try to say you own a trope when (in Soviet Russia) the trope owns you.

Jason Cordova writes books. Really, people pay him to do this. It’s odd. He also blogs irregularly, and runs a book review site. His latest book, Murder World: Kaiju Dawn, is out and he believes you should buy it and gift it to the Firefly fan in the house. They’ll thank you for it.

62 thoughts on “Ripping Ideas Off

  1. I took a creative writing course years ago – the prof said “Bad authors copy ideas from other authors. Good authors steal them wholesale.” Been trying to live up to this concept ever since.

      1. If you’re talking about writers complaining about other writers “stealing their ideas”, I think it’s rare for professional writers to do so.

        On the other hand, there have been cases where the writer believes that somebody else “stole” his/her characters/worlds.

        Sort of like using a recognizable Spock in a science fiction story.

        Of course, if I used a recognizable Spock in a story, the readers would throw the book across the room. [Smile]

      1. A failed attempt by GamesWorkshop to trademark the use of “space marine” across all forms of media, forgetting that the term was used by Heinlein and others long before. They managed to keep the usage of it for their videogames, but last I heard that’s being challenged as well.

    1. *grin* Oh thank you. I don’t have to do it now.

      And thanks for reminding me. I wanted to look up if the guy who voiced Briarios in Appleseed Alpha was the guy who did the voice for Master Chief. And to check if it was done with English voice actors full stop (like the second Vampire Hunter D movie.)

  2. The “danger” IMO is if you borrow an idea but “don’t make it your own”.

    IE your alien second-in-command (or just your alien on the ship bridge) is obviously Spock, changing his name and species name wouldn’t help you.

    Not only would the owners of Star Trek come after you, your readers will throw your book across the room.

    Still if your Orcs are shown to been slaves of the Dark Ones and are potentially (or are) somewhat nice guys to have as neighbors, David Weber isn’t going to come after you. [Smile]

    1. The taste of the market is more important than legal protection. If you rub off the serial numbers thoroughly enough, Paramount _couldn’t_ come after you for writing an obvious rip-off of Spock. You can ape another writer to an unfathomable degree while remaining _legally_ safe. But if you don’t do something different with the material than the original writer did (such as, say, turning the sublimated/fantasy porn of “Twilight” into the explicit BD/SM of “50 Shades of Gray”), then nobody’s going to want to buy it.

  3. Eh, all that Tolkien guy did was rip off the Elder Edda. How original. Big whoop . . . 😉

  4. SF fans can be amazingly thickheaded about this. When “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” was announced, some people indignantly claimed that it was a ripoff of “Babylon 5” — as if Joe Straczynski had invented the idea of a space station in 1997. And when both shows were actually on the air, it quickly became obvious that despite having that element in common, they didn’t resemble each other at all.

    As Paul pointed out, what matters is not whether the premise of your story is original (if that’s even possible), but whether you put your own unique spin on it. Case in point: Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” Haldeman’s “The Forever War”, Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”, and Kloos’s “Terms of Enlistment”. Each is a tale of interstellar war against a dangerous alien foe, told from the point of view of a foot soldier, and beginning with the viewpoint character’s induction and basic training. Yet every one of those stories is completely different from the others.

    1. JMS still thinks the execs passed ideas to the DS9 writers. The DS9 writers are amused by the notion of the execs having ideas.

      1. TV execs have plenty of ideas. JMS offered _far_ more words on that concept than he did on his notion that Paramount tried to steal B5. Of course, if their ideas were _good_ ideas, they’d be writers instead of executives. (There was even an episode of Crusade that was very transparently about his frustration with the inanity of the “notes” from network folks.)

        But even if his supposition is true (and I have no reason to doubt that it could be), that Paramount, after being pitched the concept for B5 and turning it down, green-lighted a new Trek series also set on a fixed station just in time to compete with it, and did so out of spite…well, the Trek writers took their show in not only a different direction than JMS had in mind for B5, but a _radically_ different direction than Trek had ever taken before or has ever taken since. And both shows lasted long enough to tell their whole stories, and the world is a better place for both.

        It is also worth noting that, however convinced JMS was that the original DS9 idea was taken from his B5 pitch, he never seems to have even contemplated the idea of taking legal action as a result.

        1. The phrase “You’ll never work in this town again” probably entered into it. At the time he was still trying to raise money to continue independently producing B5.

  5. When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin’ lyre,
    He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;
    An’ what he thought ‘e might require,
    ‘E went an’ took — the same as me!

    The market-girls an’ fishermen,
    The shepherds an’ the sailors, too,
    They ‘eard old songs turn up again,
    But kep’ it quiet — same as you!

    They knew ‘e stole; ‘e knew they knowed.
    They didn’t tell, nor make a fuss,
    But winked at ‘Omer down the road,
    An’ ‘e winked back — the same as us!

    1. Funny you should mention Homer. When “Star Trek Voyager” was announced, the haters immediately started denouncing it as a ripoff of either “Lost in Space” or “Gilligan’s Island”. This was idiotic, because “Lost in Space” is about a ship whose crew don’t know where they are (that’s why the word “lost” is right there in the title), and “Gilligan’s Island” is about people who are trapped on an island because they don’t HAVE a ship anymore. “Voyager” isn’t like either of those; the ship is fully functional, and the crew know exactly where they are, but have a very long voyage ahead of them before they get home. And along the way, they encounter all kinds of weird and interesting people and things. In other words, “Voyager” was REALLY based on “The Odyssey”, but nobody ever seemed to figure that out.

      1. A failure of the public school system. The Odyssey is one of the base story types in the European shared culture.

  6. A couple of additional examples: James P. Hogan wrote “Inherit the Stars” in part because he found the premise of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (the discovery of an ancient enigma on the Moon) intriguing, but was disappointed by the weird and incomprehensible story that Kubrick chose to tell about it. Jack Chalker felt the same way about the premise of “Forbidden Planet” (an alien civilization develops a technology that can instantly respond to their thoughts, giving them whatever they desire). So he wrote “Midnight at the Well of Souls”. Each author took the premise of a movie and then ran in a completely different direction with it. The result is so unlike the film that if both authors hadn’t TOLD us where they got their ideas, nobody would ever have figured it out.

      1. I should have mentioned that the movie “Serenity” (sequel to the “Firefly” TV series) also reuses the premise — or, rather, ONE of the premises — of “Forbidden Planet”, and Joss Whedon actually makes a point of PRESERVING the serial number. Literally. In a deliberate shout-out, the serial number (C57D) of the starship in “Forbidden Planet” appears prominently on a crashed ship in “Serenity”. But Whedon also knows that “Forbidden Planet” is a science fiction remake of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, which is why the name Miranda features prominently in “Serenity” as well.

  7. How long has this been going on? Well, Homer stole from Gilgamesh. And Genesis stole from both of them …

    1. Eh. Genesis came first. Gilgamesh was written based on the same stories passed down, but from a pagan slant. The people were only a handful of generations past the Flood, after all, so it’s no surprise that they all shared their history and their stories.

      1. Eh indeed. Historians and Biblical scholars have Genesis being consolidated from several similar texts that originated in the rough time frame of the reign of Solomon to the Babylonian exile, while the earliest known finds of the Epic of Gilgamesh date out a millennium or so earlier. Zero doubt parts of Epic and Genesis derive from the same regional-myth sources, but the Sumerians really were there first in getting it down on clay. Shame there’s no way to collect the back royalties.

        Only kind of joking about Homer. There’s some obvious cross-contamination of Bronze Age mythology/history there between the Levant and the ancient Greek states, just as there is between Mesopotamian epics and the Vedic epics.

  8. Hey, I steal wholesale and am proud of it. I really like to take ideas that I think are done badly and try to make them right, though I will also steal some very good ideas. Take powered armor, used originally by Heinlein, then borrowed by Ringo, Weber, and too many others to mention. Powered armor is just a great idea whose applications for future combat are numerous. I tried to carry it a bit further by having crews of warships in powered armor (may have been done before, but, if so, I don’t know where). People have accused me of stealing Heinlein’s idea, to which I proudly say, yes. If you’re going to steal, only take the best. It just seems stupid to have people in soft clothing running around on a battle field with high energy weapons including particle beams and nukes. Of course, that too is a trope, and an overdone one in my opinion.

      1. The theft of armor from Doc Smith was cheerfully and unrepentantly acknowledged in Universe Expanded I think

  9. I seem to remember a high school teacher (high school was a long time ago!) telling us that there are only about 63 different possible story plots. This may not be entirely accurate, but it does seem that the number of possibilities must be somewhat limited. Likewise, the number of possible details within those stories must have a finite limit, although much larger than the number of possible plots. Therefore, it would be silly to expect every single author to come up with an entirely new plot and all entirely new details! Are other genres expected to come up with entirely new details for each story?!? Just think of murder mysteries — how many Jack the Ripper types have been written about, for example? How many deaths by poison? And so on. You can expect to have new twists, new conjunctions of details, and different kinds and quality of writing the story, but there really are no new stories, just old ones retold.

  10. Asimov wrote an article entitled “Between Earth and Heaven;” Niven read it and wrote ‘Footfall.’ Asimov was pleased when Niven told him where he got the idea. Niven has emphatically denied any desire to go after Halo for ripping off Ringworld, because you can’t copywrite a planet. Totally new ideas are rare, but I would argue that Brad Torgenson’s alien repentance theme in Chaplain’s War is totally new; if not new, at least it hasn’t had time to need a haircut.
    Not new ideas, but new writing makes for entertainment. Good first lines rock:
    Call me Ishmael.
    Louis Wu was under the wire.
    Imprimus, they nuked the spaceport.
    It was a dark and stormy night.

    1. “It was a dark and stormy night.”

      I prefer Snoopy’s rewrite: “He was a dark and stormy knight.”

      At the risky of soliciting possibly unsubstantiated gossip, who is the author (allegedly) complaining about having their ideas stolen, and by whom?

      1. I think the author was trying to avoid calling someone out on a sadly pretty common thing.

        More common in lower level things– good heavens, there are entire companies built around finding out what Disney is bringing out and pushing something vaguely similar a month earlier– but I’m guessing if he wanted to deal with the crud from specifically identifying someone, he would’ve mentioned them!

      1. American Book Review has a list of the top 100 best first lines in novels. It’s mostly crap, from books you wouldn’t read unless forced, and then under protest. Most of the first lines are just too precious for words.

        1. “The night was moist.” wouldn’t appear on any such list. It comes from a film.

          I googled “great opening lines” and American Book Review came out top (and I use Yeah… lot of crap, and precious indeed.

              1. Oh, frap, YEAH! May have been my first Heinlein. I shared it with my other sixth grade friends, and we walked around saying ‘BOOM, Brains all over the ceiling!’ for weeks!

                1. My very first science fiction novel. Began a 30+ year love affair with the genre. A love I thought was dead until I me y’all.

  11. Alfred Bester’s Tiger Tiger (1956) is a re-telling of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. Jack Vance did much the same in his Demon Princes series (1963 on). Both did more than take ideas and run with them, they took plot points wholesale and are significant to each story. Nevertheless, both books stand on their own merits, IMHO.

    AE van Vogt wrote Empire of the Atom (1957, though a fix up of earlier stories) and is another re-telling, this time of Graves’ I, Claudius. The only difference with the above is that Graves probably had grounds to sue.

  12. Embers by Vathara is basically just re-writing the Avatar series for adults. At one point, Katara’s father hangs a lampshade on how her being deliberately taken hostage on the coal barge was a really, really, REALLY bad idea, and the only way she wouldn’t know is because she’s so innocent. Fire Nation is pretty solidly based on the Japanese, after all, and… yeah, really could’ve gone more horrific detail, but thankfully didn’t.

    Re-telling X as Y is a great sub-group of stories. (Wagon Train to the Stars!)

    1. And thank you very much for the Embers recommendation, by the way. I enjoyed it a lot, even though I was caught by surprise by how quickly it wrapped up when it ended. I expected a couple more chapters of dénouement. For example, did _____ and _____ ever get together the way the story was hinting they would? I think they did, but I would have liked confirmation.

      … Speaking of which, I want to talk more about Embers without posting spoilers. Want to fire me an email for that purpose? Put a dot between my first and last names, and deliver it courtesy of Google’s free email service.

      Back on topics that I can discuss in public without spoiling an excellent story for others (seriously, everyone who liked the Avatar series should read Embers), I recently read Treasure Planet, by Hal Colebatch and Jessica Fox, a story set in Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars universe. I didn’t clue in to what it was from the title, or from the dedication to Robert L. Stevenson (yeah, I wasn’t paying attention, that one wasn’t exactly subtle) but when the second paragraph opens with the narrator saying that he’s put in “a bit of misdirection in where the Treasure Planet actually is, because one day we’re going back there, and we don’t want to find that any other human or kzin has got to it first”… well, for someone who grew up listening (over and over) to a book-on-tape rendition of Treasure Island, that one was kind of hard to miss. Fun book, by the way, though not quite as fun as the original for me. Still, I had a big grin on my face from time to time.

  13. Bit off topic but… Not having seen it announced elsewhere, I went to the Baen Fantasy Award page, and they’ve posted the winners:

    GRAND PRIZE: “The Golden Knight” by K. D. Julicher

    FIRST RUNNERUP: “Phoenix for the Amateur Chef” by Scott Huggins

    SECOND RUNNERUP: “The Girl with No Name” by Travis Heermann

    So I guess I’m free to post my story to DA.

    Also, my free promotion on Kiwi runs through today (Saturday) and It’s gratifying, I guess, to see that I’ve given away in a day and a half twice as many copies as I’ve sold in seven months…. (I had at least 16, maybe 20 go out before the Book Plug Friday article went up, so I have no idea how they’re finding me. I’m not seeing any hits on my affiliate links.)

    But seriously, it shows the power of the freebie. And if I’d had other things to sell, maybe I’d have sold some of them.

    Ah, if only someone hadn’t tagged my worst review as helpful and popped it to the top of the stack….

        1. I figured it was legit. I picked up Kiwi a couple of weeks ago on the strength of those reviews. It’s in my TBR pile.

      1. Link is in my name. If I post it here, the cover shows up and spams the place. It’s also in the Book Promo post (Amid FINE company from the other authors here) on According to Hoyt.

      1. Very clever story. I really enjoyed it, but, although the cover idea sounds fabulous, I think it would give too much away, especially with the tagline. Not having read your explanation, I was surprised by the “fate” of various persons.

      2. Quote: “…to my utter disbelief, he started to narrate what he’d done…”

        I don’t care who ya are, that right there is brilliant!

  14. As I recall, once upon a time someone tried to patent the idea of geosynchronous com satellites and got Arthur C. Clarke shoved in their face. Then one company tried the same thing with water beds and was introduced to Heinlein’s Stranger.
    Speaking of Heinlein, fans wanted him to raise a stink about Gerrold’s tribbles being a ripoff of his Martian flat cats. Robert just laughed and mentioned a string of ancient classic fables he had “borrowed” that and other ideas from.
    Speaking of Gerrold, it’s always been my observation that most of his books were based on Heinlein novels and short stories. Can’t say I see anything wrong with taking a good idea and turning it 87.5 degrees sideways and making it your own with the entirely new perspective. A different take and a damn good tale will always sell to the serious reader.

  15. Interesting post, Jason.

    Some things you can copyright, such as Sharon Lee and Steve Miller copyrighting the term “Liaden Universe.” But the stuff the Liadens do — Trade, mostly, and cross-cultural alliances, and the whole clan system, etc. — is not unique in and of itself if you take it down to its component parts.

    What’s so good about it is how they put all of it together.

    The ideas I play with for the most part aren’t new, either. How I put them together, however, _is_. Doesn’t matter if it’s a milSF story or an urban fantasy or what _type_ of urban fantasy it is, for that matter . . . what you’re looking for is something original in how the author puts things together.

  16. Reblogged this on The Worlds of Tarien Cole and commented:
    I would even say that the idea of ‘originality’ as such is grossly overplayed, since the 7 Archetype plots go back to the Greek Myths and beginning of recorded storytelling–at least. Even the Bard Himself was a gleeful thief of history and myth. Good writers steal shamelessly and twist the results into their own twisted imaginings.

    To wit: I quote Jim Butcher: “Tropes are not evil. Cliches are evil. The difference between a trope and a cliche is that the second is done badly.”

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