Linda G. Hill

Life in progress

Inspiration and Copyright Infringement – How Fine Is The Line?

63 Comments

There are, arguably, seven basic plots. I won’t list them here, but you can find them if you click this link: The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker. All seven can be said to result from real life inspiration. While fiction can take these inspirations to incredible heights, the ideas begin from somewhere.

So we have inspiration, yes?

It was brought to my attention this morning that there has been a lawsuit taken up by Sherrilyn Kenyon, bestselling author of the Dark-Hunter paranormal romance series, accusing Cassandra Clare, bestselling author of Mortal Instruments and the Shadowhunter series, of copyright infringement. (Read the article here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/10/sherrilyn-kenyon-sues-cassandra-clare-for-wilfully-copying-her-novels )

In this particular case, it seems to me a clear case of copying: if you read the exhibit (click here) given in the lawsuit, the infinite monkey theorem comes to mind as the only other possible explanation, particularly when Clare denies even having been inspired by Kenyon’s work. Either that or both authors are the same person and the lawsuit is an attempt to drum up business.

…hey, there’s an idea for a novel. You see what I mean? THAT’s inspiration.

While there is a lively discussion going on in the FaceBook group I belong to about whether or not an author can own an idea, and how within a genre certain aspects of creations (worlds, characters, fantastical traits) will keep popping up, there has to be a line upon which copying and inspiration is drawn. And my FaceBook acquaintances have a very good point. Though fiction is inspired by real life, fiction also inspires more fiction. How many novels and screenplays have been inspired by the character of Dracula? Countless. Although Dracula may be a bad example because its copyrights have expired, normally permission must be given to copy a story. But what about inspiration? I’m sure Ann Rice and Stephenie Meyer had no issues over creating vampires as their main characters. The point is, they created their own brand of vampires, expanding on the inspiration they received from the Master.

Just as there are only so many plotlines, world building is similarly restricted to having features that we humans can relate to; characters as well. There is a common fear among authors that we are infringing upon each other’s ideas, and these restrictions are to blame. Of course we can’t read everything, just to make sure, but when we do read something that inspires us, I believe it’s the mark of a good author that he or she can expand that inspiration to create something new from it.

So we have copyright infringement vs. inspiration. Is there a magic number of similarities which define where the line is and when it’s crossed? If so, what is it? Have you ever read something that you think crosses the line? Let’s discuss.

Author: LindaGHill

There's a writer in here, clawing her way out.

63 thoughts on “Inspiration and Copyright Infringement – How Fine Is The Line?

  1. Very similar. I can see why this is now a lawsuit.
    Excellent post and comments. Thank you.

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  3. Reblogged this on Her Headache and commented:
    Should I be getting myself one of those copyright notices too? Hmmmmm. Interesting discussion to be had here.

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    • A lot of bloggers have them on their pages as widgets. I think it’s a good idea – how much they actually deter people who are out to steal anyway, I really don’t know.
      Thanks for the reblog, Kerry. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure “Dracula” (1897) is a particularly good example, given that the character was pretty much lifted wholesale from the life of Vlad the Impaler and the first appearance of a literary vampire was over a hundred years prior to Stoker’s novel.
    Even the popular trope of lesbian vampires that adds an extra erotic overtone to everything from The Hunger to True Blood was created by Sheridan le Fanu for his story “Carmilla” in 1872, 25 years before Dracula.
    Even Polidori, who wrote “The Vampyre” in 1819, based the plot of his take on the life of his debauched mate, Lord Byron.

    So who was plagiarizing whom?

    Admittedly, direct copying of somebody’s work is not only pointless but self-defeating, given that the copy will always be unfavorably compared to the original, so I fail to see the point in doing that.
    However, I do think there is a certain amount of convergent inspiration (for want of a better term) that leads to subconscious absorption of other artists’ work, whether or not the person being inspired realised it and in those cases the inspired work can often be an improvement. After all, an idea is only an idea, if it’s badly written, it’ll still be a bad read. Someone taking that idea (time travel, for example) and writing a great story, shouldn’t be criticized for not having an original idea if their work takes it in a new and interesting direction.

    As usual, I’ve no idea whether this comes near to answering whatever your question was, but thanks for asking anyway, hahaha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I realize “Dracula” is a bad example for many reasons. But it was all I could think of when I wrote this post. Sue me. Or actually, don’t . πŸ˜›

      I agree, plagiarism is pointless. And I also agree that taking a general scenario and expanding upon it using one’s own unique direction is hardly copying an idea. I think though, the direction has to be at least, say, 10 degrees off course? I dunno.

      Did I answer my own question? You’re welcome. πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh god how stupid. The “plot” of these books, which to me sucks by the way, is the SAME plot in almost every children’s fantasy book I read and I read tons of them. This woman needs to get over herself. You can’t copyright a damn plot!

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    • No, you can’t. But did you read the “exhibit”? It seems every tiny little detail was copied.

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      • No I didn’t read it. Just the article. If she did indeed copy it word for word than she deserves to be sued. But the “plot line” in general is soooo generic… it literally is a mold for most books. That amused me.

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        • This is true – there are a lot of very similar books out there. I’m sure a large part of the whole deal is the money that’s being earned off a series that appears to be cut and pasted apart from the names.

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          • That is exactly it. I guess if they have the extra money to battle it out in court have fun with that. I have seen an endless number of lawsuits where people claim someone “stole something.” Everything from a T-shirt idea, to an app, to a freaking joke by a comedian. It gets old. Like that woman said in the article you can’t copyright everything or no one could write anything.

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            • No you can’t copyright everything – but I do believe we have the right to own our exact ideas. We all have copyright notices on our blogs, right?
              Word-for-word is plagiarism. Isn’t just changing a few here and there? How many do you have to change to get away with it? That’s the question I’m asking in this post.

              Liked by 2 people

              • Word for word is plagiarism, but the growing norm is that changing “some of it” is acceptable these days. It sucks, but it is accepted. Fan fiction is my point of reference of course.

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              • Fanfics generally keep the characters but carry on a scene where the original left off. 50 Shades is a perfect example of a fanfic (of Twilight) that got away with it because she transformed it into a completely different genre. E.L. James is the only one I know who’s gotten away with it to the tune of millions of dollars.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Those are published fanfics. If you browse realtime writing, such as blogs, you’ll see what most people would consider plagiarism. It isn’t word for word though, but it is the theme carried over. Hell some authors get mad that you steal their “character names,” like there is only one Flynn Rider in fiction? Sigh… I get your points, but my point is and always has been that people will forever copy stuff. It is just a matter of how lazy they are about it. It has been happening to me since week one. You know I actually come across people with posts claiming they have a 33.3% formula… but it is the same thing… who knows! lol

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              • Yep, I know. It’s rampant. Just a bunch of losers trying to take credit for something they stole.
                Hey, I have a 33.3% formula – 33.3% rum, 33.3% Coke, and 33.3% ice. Trick is to drink it before the ice melts. πŸ˜‰ Is that the same as yours? πŸ˜€

                Liked by 1 person

              • That looks like mine… minus the ice and coke. lmao!

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  6. I think this is a silly lawsuit. I think the mythology is the same in both stories, but they differ in setting, target audience, rating, and characters. The plots are similar, but different enough. You can’t copyright an idea. I can’t copyright 10 year old white N cream pom dog stories because my dog is that and I wrote about her first. People will come after me and write their own” Bianca “stories.

    It’s all about writing style and being confident in your work. Dark Hunter Series has a million books. Immortal has 6 (and a spin off). It’s movie bombed and I’m sure the Tv series will as well.

    Supernatural is my genre if choice. At the end of the day, you can only change or monster or supernatural being so much or they no longer are the creature intended. As long as good writing, character development and strong plot is brought to the table, I say writing bout ideas is fare game.

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    • Have you read both series? I was hoping someone would show up who had.
      If the “exhibit” document is to be believed, it seems there was nothing new about the characters except their names…
      I do agree with you though that writing style and confidence is important, as long as no one is copying someone else’s ideas.

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  7. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    This is a great post. Whenever I’m asked where ideas come from, you never know.

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  8. Reblogged this on Pearls Before Swine and commented:
    Wow. This is too close for comfort. I’d be devastated.

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  9. Funny timing, as this question applies to “The Alchemist”. It is said that, “One of the chief complaints lodged against the book is that the story is a retelling of “The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream”. Coelho, however, does not credit this source text anywhere in the book or in the preface, passing the story as an original work of fiction. Also the life story of Takkeci Ibrahim Aga who is believed to have lived in Istanbul during the 1500s, has the same plot. So too does the English folk tale, the “Pedlar of Swaffham”.

    With so many authors out there, people are bound to have the same idea of someone else. It’s inevitable. Unless the book is almost an exact replica, I don’t see why it would be an issue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, see that’s where the line fits in. Having the same plot isn’t necessarily having identical characters and setting… That’s where it becomes a replica.
      I didn’t know that of The Alchemist. Interesting. πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing that, my dear.

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      • This is similar to the 1940’s battle between DC Comics (then National) and Fawcett Publications over the characters Superman and Captain Marvel. DC claimed that the, far more popular CM, was a copy of SM, even though CM had abilities that SM didn’t (like the ability to fly – SM just jumped real far, like the Hulk). The suit lasted 12 years, during which time DC copied some of CM’s abilities, including flight. Both companies made the same claims about action scenes in their opponents comics that were similar to their own. Oddly enough, the creators of SM didn’t copyright him until after the introduction of CM, but the courts still judged in favor of DC. Years later DC purchase CM from Fawcett.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That;s true. Very good point. Having identical characters certainly draws some questions of originality.

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  10. I’ve sent this link to Sassy, since she’s a huge Clare fan. I’d say there’s a bit too much similarity there to be completely innocent. Can Clare claim she’d never even read Kenyon’s books? Hmm. Yeah, I no likey that. I’d sue, too. Especially since they’re making Clare’s books into shows and movies or whatever, I’m just the mom, lol!
    I think there’s truth in the fact of the canon. We all build on something that already exists. There just are some basic qualities, assumptions, and studies about metaphysical / spiritual world that writer’s generally stick to, but there are too many commonalities in that link to be in good taste.
    Also, I am irked that The Guardian has a writer who’s putting punctuation outside quotation marks like it’s cool. Mercy. Are there no standards left in journalism?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Well, the site has changed. Maybe someone rapped her fingers already, but the link I gave should have opened the poem I mentioned. I could not even find a search engine to locate it this time. Did anyone else have any success? Several years ago (the last time I looked for the poem there) this author only featured poems she had written. Now she is featuring multiple categories of poems by famous people. A good change for sure…

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  12. I don’t want to get into a wrangle with anyone, but I thought this one was a cheap shot–a perfect illustration of how low some will stoop. Read the poem first, and then read my comment.

    A modern day poet, (Lena Lathrop http://judithpordon.tripod.com/poetry/index.html) claims authorship of β€œA Woman’s Question”, but the book (Duties and Beauties of Life: A Book for the Home, Edited by F.L. Rowe, Assisted by M.A.C., published in 1908, F.L. Rowe, Publisher, Cincinnati, OH) includes a copy of this poem and the author is purported to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

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  13. That’s a pretty good idea for getting publicity Linda. If I ever write a book, maybe I’ll sue myself. But, then you’d sue me…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. An excellent question. Is it fair to say you can copyright a thought/series of thoughts that lead to a creative endeavor ? Inspiration is one thing. Copying text is another. I’m just not sure about that line.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I can’t even begin to imagine what that line would be. BUt it’s similar in music….I have heard so many tunes that have similar chord progressions or parts of a melody that I think it’s a remake of a song I already knew. Can a musician own a series of chords or is there a magic number of notes in a row that is the line between covering someone’s work? I don’t know. But they do say that imitation is the most sincerest form of flattery…I guess until there’s money involved, right?

    Liked by 2 people

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