There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

So, this morning (yes, I crashed early yesterday) I was sent this article NEWS: Sherrilyn Kenyon sues Cassandra Clare over infringement claims by Amanda S. Green.  It’s amazing.  And by that I mean, I was amazed anyone is giving this so called “plagearism” any credence.

Now, I haven’t read the complaint, so perhaps there is more to it, and the complaint is more substantial.  However, I’ll point out I snort-giggled about the publisher confusing the two series and how this bolsters the claim of plagiarism.  Yeah.  Because publishers are so attentive and with it.  For instance, the first comments I got back from my publisher on the Musketeer’s mysteries (the first book) which was published by a different division of my first publisher, the comments were very confused because they wanted to know when Shakespeare would come in, and where had the magic gone?  Those of you who’ve read Magical Shakespeare and Musketeer mysteries know how insane that is, and I was even using a different pen name, however their confusion stuck long enough their cover for the first book had Shakespearean style buildings, completely out of place for the time and setting of the book.

Other things that happened at various houses and were fortunately caught in time: quotes for other authors ending up on my cover; my getting returned manuscripts that weren’t mine, and my getting critiques intended for other books, which I’m sure are several breaches of privacy.

Publishers are much busier and more chaotic than most of us imagine, and a lot of work is done by underpaid clerks, so whether or not they confuse something, means nothing.

As for librarians and bookstores getting confused about a book: yeah, that too means nothing.  That first book of mine?  Got shelved in everything from Theater to History.  And I got an email from an irate history professor who asked me if I was out of my ever loving mind to write a Shakespearean biography and have elves in it.  Elves! he said.  I remember it included the lovely line “I do not know nor care which New Age program you attended.”  So, yeah.

Anyway, I don’t know details of the case, and perhaps it has more merit than it seems to, but on the face of it, I can’t imagine it.  (I’ve only read one book of one of the series, because it was free, and I was so high on percocet that I can’t give you a straight opinion on it, but I remember enough to think it would have flown against the wall with force, if I’d been in my right mind.)

So… ideas.

Let’s begin with the fact that everyone says “there are no new ideas.”  They’re full of it.  Sure, if you abstract it enough there are no new ideas.  Every romance novel ever written is about “boy meets girl and the course of their love” or vice versa.  But there’s a world of difference between Shakespeare in Love and Ten Things I Hate About You, all the same.

Part of my reason for thinking that the claim is baseless is that it boils down to “band of humans fight uncanny menace.”  I am in fact about to write a series (for indie, as soon as I have time) which could be described the same way.  You know what?  So could Jim Butcher’s Dresden files.  And, oh, Buffy the Vampire slayer.

But you know what, the idea is not the same.  The theme or meme or whatever is the same.  The execution varies greatly.

Years ago in my writers’ group one of my best friends had the bad habit of poaching ideas and excusing it with “there are no new ideas.”  Which was fine and dandy, except that she also poached bits of the execution.  You know, there would be bio-engineering that differed enough from mine and my world (or other people’s) build that it might NOT be actionable.  (Not that it mattered, we were all unpublished.)  BUT which got her nasty looks from other members of the group.

It’s entirely possible this case is of that sort, and that the writer is mad at someone else taking that close an idea and making a mint. I would, even if the copyright claim is fuzzy.

So… how much do you need to worry about “Stealing” ideas?

Well, if you love Harry Potter, you can totally write a story set in a magical school.  Despite what the mainstream press thought, it was not a stunningly original idea, and in fact, it has been kicking around the field since pre-history.

I’d just advise against having it entered through a magical train platform, against naming the kid Harry, and against having the background be the same with a dark lord and all.  And I definitely advise against all three. And ix nay on the owl-ay.

Or say you love and adore Dresden and want to write about a mortal solving supernatural mysteries.  Again, been done to death, and he himself was inspired by early Laurell Hamilton.  However, make him a disguised elf.  Or an invoker, or something not a wizard.  And please, for the love of Bob, build your own supernatural pantheon, as he did, instead of stealing his.

In our writers group, back in year zero, there was an annual ritual.  All of us entered the Strange New World’s contest and over the years two (three, because one was a collaboration) got in.  The rest showed up at the next meeting with the “serial numbers filed off.”

Now, it depended on how complex the story was, how many star trek tropes it invoked, and how much you were willing to do, just how filed the numbers were.  My friend Alan’s story about the prime directive and someone accidentally leaving a wrench behind was lightly filed.  I.e. he changed Federation to something (I don’t remember) like Galactic Government and the names and ranks of people, and it sold to Analog.  (It was a short-short.)  I think it appeared in probability zero.

My story which took place entirely in the holo deck, I transferred to my future history and a city on Earth.  It too sold, though I can’t remember where anymore.

When we were done, nothing remained identifiable or traceable to star trek, except the meme in his case of an extra-solar, multi-planet entity with something like the prime directive.  (I think it was called first rule in the story.)  Yeah, fans would see echoes, but it wasn’t even close to infringing copyright.

So are there no new ideas?

Of course there are new ideas, at least when you get past the very high level concept.  There are certainly new ways to put ideas together.

If you’re going to tread into someone else’s bailiwick, you should be aware of what’s unique to that world and time and what they brought together to create it.  And then you should keep what you like best, and change the rest.

No, it’s not likely, unless you’re exceedingly stupid or take actual words from the book, that a copyright infringement claim will stick.

But you didn’t get in this to write other people’s stories, did you? What would the point of that be?

So steal the silver, but leave the cleaning rags.  Steal the diamonds, but leave the gold-plated setting.  Take the best, leave the rest and make it YOURS.

Above all, make it yours.  Or else, go write fanfic.

And don’t steal your group-mates’ ideas.  It does you no good and earns you ill will.  Also violates Jim Baen’s rule about not being a butthead.

If you do break in, even indie, your biggest asset is your network.  Alienating it would be foolish.

And other than that, don’t worry.  Write what you feel passionate about and have fun.




74 thoughts on “There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

  1. I personally had a hell of a lot of fun, swiping certain elements of the Lone Ranger mythos and re-working it to suit a historically accurate setting! Ditched the mask, the silver bullets, the magnificent white stallion … but kept the trope of the young Ranger being a sole survivor, and his Indian blood-brother sidekick.

    1. Well, in your case, you were working from the inspiration stories too. (For those who don’t know, there is at least one historical person who is likely a direct inspiration for The Lone Ranger. There were probably others—can’t waste a good story!)

  2. I remember when this plagiarism accusation first bubbled up back in 2009 (I think it was earlier, but I first heard about it in 2009) except that the original accusation was that she had written Dark-Hunter slash-fic, then changed the names of the characters when people started liking the stories.

    But like others have said in the past, ideas aren’t original. It’s the execution of it that sets one apart.

    1. And of course those of us who remember Cassandra Clare from Harry Potter fanfiction are going to wonder if there really is something to this (seemingly a bit far-fetched) lawsuit because of her plagiarism accusations there. I would hope she had learned something about how “inspiration” and “lifting from other peoples’ stuff” are different, though.

        1. It’s actually possible that this could be a reverse “boy who cried wolf” scenario – CC may have done nothing wrong this time but her past behavior will definitely raise flags in a lot of minds.

  3. Then there’s “The Return of Odysseus”.

    IIRC one of David Drake’s Hammer stories is a retelling of Odysseus’s return to his home.

    Years ago, I read a space opera (can’t remember the author/title) were one episode of the Main Character’s story involves him with an Odysseus-Like character who is returning home to his planet/kingdom.

    Oh that episode doesn’t work out the same way Homer wrote it as the wife was doing just fine ruling the planet without it and the Odysseus-Like character was quickly killed by the wife’s consort. Of course, it appeared that the wife’s only concern was that the consort may be more a threat to her position than she thought. 😈 twisted:

  4. One of these is a spy thriller written by a major author with over 200 million books in print and was published in 1980. The other is a western written by a major author with over 200 million books in print and was published in 1969. Both have been turned into movies.

    1-In one swift moment, a fall wiped away his memory. All he knew for certain was that someone wanted him dead—and that he had better learn why. But everywhere he turned there seemed to be more questions—or people too willing to hide the truth behind a smoke screen of lies. He had only the name he had been told was his own, his mysterious skill with a gun, and a link to a half million dollars’ worth of buried gold as evidence of his past life. Was the treasure his? Was he a thief? A killer? He didn’t have the answers, but he needed them soon. Because what he still didn’t know about himself, others did—and if he didn’t unlock the secret of his past, he wasn’t going to have much of a future.
    2-Who is **********? Is he an assassin, a terrorist, a thief? Why has he got four million dollars in a Swiss bank account? Why has someone tried to murder him?…
    ********* does not know the answer to any of these questions. Suffering from amnesia, he does not even know that he is **********. What manner of man is he? What are his secrets? Who has he killed?

    There are probably earlier examples of the same story as well.
    1-The Man Called Noon by Louis L’Amour. 2-The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

  5. I did steal a bunch of stuff from The Odyssey, once. (But then Homer said I could, Honest!)
    But back in 2000 I had a very detailed and interesting dream, that i wrote down the next morning (it did eventually become a book). When talking about it to a friend he told me all about Laura K. Hamilton. Up to that point I had no idea there was that whole genre of supernatural stuff out there that was doing so well.

    As for the lawsuit, I think it’s more about trademark infringement than actual plagiarism, and due to the publisher’s mistakes, I expect that portion of the lawsuit will move forward and win. I’ve seen trademark lawsuits win because two companies used the same color on their equipment, a color that was a government recommended safety/warning color!

    1. Laurell K. Hamilton, two series, Anita Blake and Meredith Gentry.
      Charlaine Harris, several series, most famous Southern Vamp from which the TV series True Blood was developed.
      Jim Butcher, the Dresden books and a sadly only one season TV show.
      And those are just ones I’ve read. I know there must be a bunch a ton more out there of varying quality.
      Point being, from a blurb, depending on how it was written, you might just get any of those series confused one with another. Bother to read even a part of the first book in each and you’ll never mistake them again.

    2. And if you believe Kipling, Homer a) wouldn’t have cared and b) was in no position to cast stones…. 😎

      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!

  6. Yup. It’s all in how you combine the familiar elements. Like an individual, a story is made from the DNA of its parents, creating something unique. That’s why I get annoyed by clueless morons on the internet picking apart something famous and popular and saying it’s not original. I mean, if LOTR came out today, those same people would be all “well, he just took stuff from the Elder Edda and the King Arthur legends and the Ring Cycle and it’s not really all *that* original . . .”

      1. Definitely racist, because it’s OBVIOUS that hobbits are all white! They were in the movies!

  7. One thing you learn working out in the world is that the building blocks may be completely ordinary, its how you put them together that makes it patentable. An iPhone is an amalgamation of sand, oil, and various metals. (And marketing). But it is the processes and how they are all put together that makes it such a useful tool.

    I’ll admit that I tend to pull a lot of stuff in my current serial from existing universes and that is one thing I really need to clean up before I can even think about publishing. Most of it’s little easter eggs like call signs but still something to consider.

  8. But you know what, the idea is not the same. The theme or meme or whatever is the same. The execution varies greatly.

    I’d love to read an anthology where all of the authors were given the same basic premise and then turned loose … talk about variety of execution! (Yes, this has probably been done already, so feel free to direct me appropriately)

    1. I don’t remember any examples of this but IIRC editors (like John Campbell) have thrown out a basic premise to several authors to see what the authors came up with. [Smile]

    2. A variant of this that I’ve seen was several short stories about the same event from different character’s perspectives. It’s a style I’ve tried to use for some of my own writing, because done well it’s pretty amusing, particularly when different people are focused on different things and interpret the events based upon their own focus.

      1. Rashomon. Though the original story was not “Rashomon” but another one from the same collection.

    3. Not quite the same, but there was one at least where different authors were handed the same essay on two different planets as the basis for writing.

      Unfortunately, I can’t recall the other two without digging out John Carr’s Forward to Uller Uprising by H. Beam Piper. (I know that I do not have them in my stacks anywhere…)

      1. The Project Gutenberg copy of Uller Uprising has both John Carr’s foreword and the essay by Dr. John D. Clark.

        However, John Carr doesn’t mention the other books based on Dr. Clark’s essay. (Note John Carr does mention that there were other books based (or to be based) on the essay.)

    4. Try Whatdunits and More Whatdunits by Mike Resnick. If I remember right, he even includes the common setups that the writers are starting with.

    5. Keith Laumer’s “Five Fates” anthology starts with a short-short by Laumer, which is then finished by four other authors and (I think) Laumer.

      1. Almost.

        It starts with an opening scene (a character’s death at the Euthanasia Center; about a page and a half long). And then five authors (Laumer, Anderson, Herbert, DIckson, and Ellison) each wrote a novelette / novella (all five combined were only 250 pages) that started with that scene.

        And those stories had no resemblance to each other — they all went off in entirely different directions.

        I doubt we’ll ever see an ebook version, since the Ellison story plays major games with typography.

  9. Back in the hay days of early science fiction when John W. Campbell ruled Astounding, later renamed Analog, with an iron fist, it was apparently a habit of his to brainstorm with his stable of regular writers. He’d throw them ideas and see what they gave him back. One of those was Heinlein’s Blowups Happen. Of course Campbell and his writers earned a visit from men in suits during WWII politely requesting that they refrain from any more stories about atomic energy for the foreseeable future. Of course out of patriotic loyalty they complied. Threats of being drafted and sent for sentry duty to the Aleutian islands may have been a factor as well.

    1. Well Uncle Lar, I heard about that visit by the “men in suits” *but* John Campbell told them that “SF has long talked about atomic energy so if we stop talking about it, that would be more noticeable than if we continued to talk about it”. Apparently wisher heads agreed with John Campbell. [Smile]

      1. Yep. The writers were working from the exact same papers (already published) that any enemy would have started from; they really had no “insider knowledge.”

        Rereading those stories, none of them had any hint of the solutions (the “gun” and “implosion”) that Los Alamos developed for the most “critical” problem – keeping the fissionables together long enough for a supercritical chain reaction.

        1. Alfred Hitchcock also hit close to the truth with Notorious filmed in 1945. Hitchcock had this idea about Nazis and a uranium bomb, and asked a Cal Tech professor for input. Hitchcock found himself tailed by the FBI during film production.

          The Cal Tech professor supposedly told Hitchcock that the idea was science fiction. When Notorius was released in 1946, it was no longer science fiction.

      2. Well stated Paul. I was reminiscing from memory. Your accurate account makes for an even better tale.

    2. “Sixth Column” started out like that too, but Heinlein did a lot of work hanging it from the original concept.

    3. According to Campbell, the story that set the FBI off wasn’t Blowups Happen, but was Cleve Cartmill’s Deadline (Astounding, March 44). There’s a clear description of an atomic bomb in Deadline, whereas Blowups Happen is a nuclear reactor, not a bomb.

      And Blowups Happen was much earlier (Astounding, Sept 40), so it was well before the war started for the US.

      1. In fact, there was a rerun of “Mysteries at the Museum” on last night (2/14) that covered the “Deadline” investigation.

  10. Nothing new…well, that sounds like a challenge!
    How about a swords/sandals/sorcery fantasy, featuring a young man with wandering hands? He gets them lopped off for his impertinence. Oh, and one more thing: I wrote Hands as a comedy. Even the chopped off hands scene soon becomes funny. Now THAT was a challenge to write!
    Or snag individuals, rework their human bodies, then dump them on an ice-age earth where humans didn’t survive. Alone. Clothing, a knife, and a hatchet, facing lions, sabertooths, dire wolves oh my. Live or die; that’s Darwin’s World and the other books in the series.
    Just for starters…

  11. There’s the infamous way Babylon 5 seemed to…er…inspire…Deep Space 9, but it was undeniably unique to have those sort of stories told in the Star Trek universe. DS9 had it’s own flavor and feel and still went in its own directions.

    And who can forget Robert Jordan, who lifted from just about everybody to make his Wheel of Time books, but managed to synthesize it all and create something that had it’s own feel and reality and managed to keep readers turning the pages…for the first half-dozen or so books at least.

    1. JMS seems to have backed off a bit on accusing the DS9 team of stealing from him. He now says the studio fed the writers ideas, while the writers lol at the idea of the studio having ideas.

      When there’s ten police procedurals set in NY at the same time and everybody’s fine, but have two space station shows at one time and everybody loses their mind!

      1. I know that they decided to change “the Grey Order” to “the Obsidian Order” to avoid comparisons with Babylon 5’s Grey Council.

    2. Rhapsody Rabbit and The Cat Concerto. Warner Brothers and MGM accused each other of plagerism. Compare with Antz and A Bug’s Life Vaguely the same idea but completely different story.

        1. Another example, infamous among animation fans, were Disney’s “Atlantis” and the anime “Nadia”.
          Both had Atlantean princess heroines that fell hard for geeks with glasses and sandy brown hair, in the decades between the Franco-Prussian War and WWI that had submarines playing a part.

          Never mind the characters were nothing alike (Disney: white-haired warrior princess of unnatural colors with tattoos & bookworm in their early-mid 20s; Anime: raven-haired dark-skinned vegan circus acrobat pacifist who thought she was African, with a pet lion cub & an inventing prodigy with a penchant for building anachronistic aircraft, both 15 years old), they were set about 20 years apart (the failed Disney TV proposal, released as a movie, had the characters advanced into the mid 1920s after the movie was just prior to WWI; Nadia took place, and sort of went out of its way to explain, the “Airship” UFO wave of the mid 1890s, with a continuity error of a sequel movie set 20 years later, with the characters still kids, after showing them as adults married with kids in 1908 in the last moments of the series).

          Even the villains had different backgrounds (not going to spoil that one)

          What they did have in common:
          1. Their production schedules overlapped. Disney probably started working on Atlantis first, but Nadia beat it out by a couple years, because of differing production speeds.
          2. Atlantis was Verne-inspired (elements of 20,000 Leagues and Journey to the Center of the Earth, with at best the entrance being off Iceland being the only direct reference), with some elements inspired by the anime Laputa aka “Castle in the Sky” (that years later, they’d actually license and release, under the second name, because a kid’s movie named for Swift’s flying city would probably not get a warm reception in Spanish-speaking theaters)
          3. Nadia STARTED with one of the original draft proposals for the movie “Laputa”, altered it a LOT, then added a crap-ton of elements from 20,000 Leagues, including a familial connection to one of the main characters to Nemo! Public Domain FTW!!!

          Common ancestry, completely different results, neither stealing from each other – but both borrowing heavily from the legacies of Jules Verne and Hayao Miyazaki.

          But, for the next decade, you had anime wanna-be experts claiming “Atlantis ripped off Nadia!” despite the experts on Nadia (including a guy from Houston was instrumental in getting the Nadia series translated and licensed not once, but TWICE by different companies, who was fairly prominent in fandom) saying there was absolutely no connections to be seen. The Narrative overrode any attempts at logic and fact (though, given the larger similarities between The Lion King and Leo/Kimba, also derived from common source material that was shared a lot more deeply), initial suspicion might have been justified a little..

          BTW, Nadia’s a fun series to watch, though the part from episodes #25-mid-30s have quality issues (series experienced an event like Babylon 5 Season 5, where it got shortened from 39 to 26 episodes, only to get a reprieve and had to re-expand the story after condensing a lot of plot, less than a month before the shortened end – resulting in 8-10 episodes that amounted to filler, after too much action crammed together). Plus, it’s by the same people as Evangelion, and is actually more of a mind-mess in similar ways to that series, only with 100% more steampunk and Captain Nemo!
          The Atlantis sequel “Milo’s Return” also has its charm, given its very Lovecraftian turns (VERY different mood than the original movie). I would have loved to have seen a full series, but I don’t think kid’s TV is ready for it now, let alone then (Makes Gravity Falls look like Scooby Doo)

          1. Which Scooby-Doo, though?
            Original Scooby-Doo, or the latest iteration, which, among other things, included a show-long narrative arc and some pretty dark stuff, including ruthless genetic splicing, Nazi robots, and actual intent to kill?

            1. Atlantis: At least on the level of the Scooby Doo you cite (which I think is the second-most recent series; There’s been a new series since, I believe, that’s gone more kiddy). Of course, you need to see that alternate ending off the DVD – I’m surprised it got made, let alone put in as an alternate on a “kid’s” DVD.

              Of course, the Nadia anime has death, destruction and mayhem galore, and a rather non-PC ending for the 5-year-old that turns out to be the PoV character/epilogue narrator.

  12. ‘When ‘Omer smote
    ‘is bloomin’ lyre…’

    Introduction to the ‘Barrack-Room
    Ballads’ in ‘The Seven Seas’

    “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!”

    Because Kipling. 🙂

  13. Of course, Vile 770 had to weigh in:

    Glyer posted:

    “Now, I haven’t read the complaint, so perhaps there is more to it, and the complaint is more substantial. …

    We’ll stop here and wait til she reads the complaint…”

    and then:

    “Tasha Turner on February 11, 2016 at 6:02 am said:


    5) AB INITIO. Sarah A. Hoyt
    Why bother with pesky facts when you can give your opinion on a summary. Research and reading a few paragraphs takes so much time and isn’t nearly as easy to make fun of. But she did include a link that’s a step in the right direction.”

    There’s certainly nothing new under the 770 sun.

        1. Got a response from Glyer:

          That’s hilarious — the rest of the column had nothing to do with the lede? I would never have known! Thanks for telling me.

          But there seems to be a new WordPress toy they’re focusing on: the ability to write <abbr title="Hi there!">this</abbr> or <acronym title="Hi there!">this</acronym> to get this and this (testing whether it’ll work here). Not likely to stop them from inventing creative readings to smear us, but it seems to have slowed them down a bit.

  14. Two of my favorite songs are story songs that tell exactly the same story. “Chestnut Mare,” by Roger McGuinn and Jacques Levy and “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” by Leonard Cohen. They are both based on archetypal ancient stories, the first on part of the Peer Gynt legends, the second on “Ten Oxen,” a Chinese series of poems accompanied by drawings. I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone that there was anything wrong with the charming and fascinating difference in the style with which the stories were told.

  15. If only someone presenting a Copyright for Writers seminar spent some time on the differences between idea and expression (the latter being copyright protected) …

  16. The whole thing with confusing “Shadow” and “Dark” reminds me of a snippet from a book — something like “No, you cannot be Team Black. We already have a Team Black, a Team Charcoal, a Team Shadow, a Team Night…(etc)… Everyone wants to be Team Black. Except Team Pink, we’re a little worried about them”

    Sound familiar to anyone?

  17. I have been watching a TV channel called MHZ a lot in recent years, its broadcast locally off a PBS station HDTV subchannel. (12-3 in Denver metro area). One international police procedural they broadcast is a subtitled Danish show titled “Unit One”. Yesterday’s broadcast episode was an direct borrowing of “Strangers on a Train” with the serial numbers not even slightly filed off.

  18. I’ve read there are only a few story lines, that every story ended up following at least one of them:

    boy meets girl
    star-crossed lovers
    a stranger brings trouble
    we go on a journey and see wonders
    the little boy fell out of bed and woke up from his dream

    Can you think of any others?

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