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.)
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.