Fanfic, derivative writing, plagiarism, copyright infringement

Images Pixabay

Somewhere, someone wrote these words before. Somewhere someone had these thoughts before.

And not just once.

Look, ALL writing is derivative. Even the most breath-takingly-original-to-you piece of pure unique-horn, is… derived. In the beginning was the Word. But the bloke who wrote as near an approximation of what it was as he could manage, using terms and words he had derived from others. They were not created de novo, but derived. Og’s three grunts back in the cave in Africa may be original but that’s about where it stops.

Now, given that there are a finite number of words, and a finite number of viable combinations, pretty well most phrases have also been used, and probably written. There are a lot of people out there. That infinite number of monkeys would in an infinite time have produced the complete works of Shakespeare. I used this e.g. with intent. It is possible that Emile Borel was the first used this metaphor in 1913. It is however possible it came from earlier than that. The origins of the idea… Borges raced it back to Aristotle and Cicero… want a bet they didn’t derive it from someone else? The idea and the metaphor are now such common usage that it is likely that any writer could have come across it – without attribution, in dozens of places.

When you add in the limitations of language, grammar, and the shared background and psychology and logic of humans, the probabilities of the patterns that make phrases are not statistically independent. You need a lot less monkeys and a lot less infinity. Of course the longer that identical piece is… the less likely it is to be identical, or even close.

This is called math. Like logic it is dangerous and can bite you on the leg. Like a crocodile it can pull you under to eat you later… or so many people seem to believe.

Personally, I think they have it backwards.

And this idea too is not original. I’m not aware of having it expressed to me. But I am sure the idea that math could eat you first and pull you under later is not new. Maybe not right either, but, well, we’re fiction writers. Much of what we write is bull.

And derived. And ideas that have been used before. Plots, plot devices, action scenes. But unless you’re actively engaged in plagiarism, that is not substantive.  Odds are – because everything is derivative, whether from having read the works or not – derivative from a mélange of sources – because most of us are actually trying to be original. And oddly that mélange IS original although the reader might recognize the sources of several of the ideas. Mocha Java is not Mocha or Java. Bordeaux blend is not Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot or even the possible bits of Malbec or whatever. They are themselves, different and possibly greater than any of the original components. Yes, you may get such an element from the Merlot, and recognize such an element from the Cab Franc. The more amateur the winemaker the more likely you are to get one varietal dominant, or to have them distinct, rather than forming that new whole.

The same holds true for writers. We had a Jackass comment made about plagiarism on Cedar’s post. It’s a nasty accusation. It’s also plainly ridiculous.

Seriously, in fiction willful plagiarism is not hard to see. It’s not a phrase. It’s not a plot twist. That might be… or not.

It’s a substantive, little changed use of someone’s work. And not in general terms either. If it is every author who has been said to be like so-and-so would fall foul of this. Every author who pitched his work to an editor in terms of other books (‘It is like Asimov with a touch of See Spot Run. With fruit’) would be a plagiarist. Even once an author starts to inexpertly blend bits…  It would have to a lot of bits, and substantively not a new blend for this accusation to be fair.

Of course there are also many areas where even extensive use is considered acceptable. Fanfic and satire being two: We’re not accusing the author of BORED OF THE RINGS of plagiarism despite the fact that it plainly has an origin in someone else’s work.  THE COLOR OF MAGIC – Sir Terry Prachett’s first discworld book is a)Fanfic. b) a satirical take on the same, with recognizable takes on Lieber’s SWORDS OF LANKMAHR and various other fantasy books.  The fascinating thing about thismixture between parody and pastiche is that it rapidly evolved to being Pratchett’s voice and a thing in itself, which has many imitators (with pretty little success, in my opinion.

Now, as much as we may frown on plagiarism – it is, in fiction anyway, unless it falls into infringing copyright, not illegal. I may feel the author ‘cheated’. Used John Doe’s ideas. Even similar phrases.  There is not a lot I – or John Doe — can do about it. Badmouth the author, perhaps. If their publisher feels they have overstepped the line (and it has to be a fairly substantive line, or publisher could end being sued, and lose) and they specified something like ‘original’ they could withdraw, or possibly recover costs. But… well it’s a bear trap. Firstly they’d have to display that was really plagiarism – quite a high bar. And secondly, like the publisher who turned down the copy of their own longest selling bestseller, you’re going to look like an ass for not spotting it.

Ideas are not copyright. Only the original, unique expression of the idea is.  And even that is conditional, and quite closely defined as pretty well precisely the same over a substantive piece of text. (So: for example ‘She said: “later darling.” – even if you precisely my same words describing precisely the same idea, it will fail. It’s hardly original, the expression of the idea hardly unique.) If: as in the monkey example above the unique expression has become unchallenged common usage… well, good luck. That’s neither plagiarism nor likely to get anywhere as copyright infringement. If you decide to sue someone for use the same phrase as Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan, to express an idea – chances are that you will end up being hoist by your own petard.




  1. Richelieu’s line about “Give me six lines written by an honest man, and I will find something there to hang him” should not be an inspirational one.

  2. yes, if i have a threatening figure say “I’ll be back” it isn’t likely plagiarism, but more likely an homage or a pop culture reference.

    1. Or even just a coincidence. The idea of a villain threatening to come back with a larger force is hardly one that originated with Terminator, and that particular phrase is probably the most concise way of saying it. In fact, I’ve never really understood why “I’ll be back” came to be the Terminator’s catchphrase: in the movie, the only reason the line stood out to me was because I already knew that everyone was quoting it.

        1. True. The Terminator was not big on conversation. His job was to kill you, not monologue you to death. And I suppose that the other things he says would make even worse catch phrases. “F@#! you, A$#@!” tends to get you in trouble with parents and teachers, “Plasma rifle in the 40 watt range” will get you mocked by those who want to know why you want an underpowered lightbulb, and “Your clothes, give them to me”…well, that could lead to all kinds of awkward.

      1. I think the trick is that Arnie said it with his accent. So it’s “Ah’ll be Bach,” not just the pedestrian “I’ll be back,” that people remember.

      2. It’s also because of the context: the incredibly flat delivery of “I’ll be back” is followed thirty seconds later by a stolen police car crashing through the front of the precinct building, after which the Terminator slays pretty much the entirety of the building’s force and completely demolishes any hope of safety or protection from Sarah. Hence, “I’ll be back” becomes a synonym for, “De ahz-kicking iz about du beginn.”

    2. The plagiarism standards for academic scientific writing and the plagiarism standards for fiction are entirely different.

      There are two types of similar problems in fiction, IP, and plagiarism.

      Fanfic necessarily infringes IP. Often fanfic plagiarizes from the source of the IP, and that is considered acceptable, if boring. There is another set of customs where it comes to plagiarism from other fanfic writers. These customs are by far stricter, and Zhao’s work is not alleged to come anywhere near any thing that would be a violation by those standards.

      I am not sure how to classify unlicensed translations. From those, I have some familiarity for certain foreign language markets. IP rules are less heavily enforced in at least one of these. I recall hearing of one project that in the original language had some inspiration from a Games Workshop property. The translation effort quit because even an unlicensed translation in English could expect some trouble from the lawyers.

      Only someone coming only from Academia could think that one line with no IP is an infringement. Some of the people endorsing the plagiarism explanation are not solely immersed in academia. So there’s lots of fun room for speculating about anti-Chinese racism.

      1. Fanfic necessarily infringes IP. Often fanfic plagiarizes from the source of the IP, and that is considered acceptable, if boring. There is another set of customs where it comes to plagiarism from other fanfic writers.

        How odd that they are willing to be tougher when they might be victims.

    3. Well, at least “I’ll be back” isn’t the same as “I shall return.” Hate to conflate The Terminator with General Douglas MacArthur.

  3. Wait, so apparently, singing songs and surrounding the deceased with flowers scenes are now plagiarism?

    I can go sue every single person who wrote that into a scene, because that’s exactly what happened at my father’s funeral? Because flowers and songs and other loving tributes are part of the send-offs of a number of different cultures, not just one, and not just a fictional one.

    The stupidity, it burns.

    1. The more ridiculous the charges, the more powerful you are to have forced capitulation to them.

      Also, the more it weakens those who capitulate. Lying like that harms the soul.

    2. It’s worse than plagiarism. It’s a Rip-Off.

      Now sane folks may ask what the difference is, so, being only somewhat sane, I’ll mansplain: Plagiarism is merely the theft of an idea, an image or an exact sequence of words. The Rip-Off, on the other hand, is an attempt to steal and replay an experience, and you get into Rip-Off territory precisely when you’ve put in just enough effort filing off the serial numbers to escape the legal definition of plagiarism.

      Now people can tolerate and even enjoy Rip-Offs as long as the creator is willing to admit that’s what they’re doing (cf. Terry Brooks, Dennis L. McKiernan or the entire oeuvre of Asylum Studios). What your average hyperemotional SJ fan despises is anything that looks even vaguely like a creator trying to “put one over” on her audience by concealing this, and because, of course, a creator can never prove that a similarity was accidental or unconscious, or that she really did try for a unique take on a universal trope (all Tragically-Died-In-The-Hero’s-Arms scenes are going to play out somewhat alike), the mere appearance of having done a Rip-Off is considered proof of guilt.

      The creator is being tried and convicted on the presumption of bad faith, in other words — the classic SJ kafkatrap.

  4. “Once, on a glittering ice-field, ages and ages ago,
    Ung, a maker of pictures, fashioned an image of snow.
    Fashioned the form of a tribesman — gaily he whistled and sung,
    Working the snow with his fingers. Read ye the Story of Ung!”

    According to Kipling, that was the invention of the popular crowd-pleasing blockbuster. 🙂

  5. We’re getting to the place now where Lefty claims of racism and plagiarism are self-refuting.

    This is -fiction- we’re doing here. It is all made up. There are common themes throughout. If I had a nickle for every Prolapsing Empire or Destroyed Earth out there I’d retire a rich man.

    Using my own work as an example, I am not the first guy to think up giant tanks. Keith Laumer came first with the giant tanks. Mine are a little different than his, but it is still clearly the same idea. So I included Keith Laumer’s name in the story, and made it clear that my Main Character was thinking about Laumer’s Bolos when he made his.

    As far as I’m concerned, that’s my due diligence. Everybody knows this is an homage to Laumer’s idea, and I’m not pretending I thought of it. So anybody screaming plagiarism can go suck a lemon.

    The lippy robot spiders are all mine though. ~:D

  6. “In the beginning was the Word.”

    It just occurred to me why the offending phrase in the Twitter-mobbed YA book was familiar (as well as appearing in LOTR and elsewhere): it calls back to “Where I go you cannot follow” – from the Gospel of John, of course, but echoed intentionally or otherwise in the final scene of Casablanca!

    Certain evocative phrases and ideas pop up all over the place – often familiar without us even knowing why – it’s not plagiarism, it’s how culture and literature work.

Comments are closed.