Thursday, November 14, 2013
In the Air
The other week we had a minor scare over at our other blog, Shapeshifter Seductions. On that blog we five writers have been chronicling the adventures of a cast of shapeshifters in Talbot’s Peak, a remote town in Montana. Imagine our consternation when we discovered an ebook publisher was putting out a multiple-author series about love and lots and lots of sex set in a remote town in Montana. Turned out it was cowboys and not shapeshifters getting it on out there in the boonies, so this time we’re okay.
Not so much with the other book, about the sexy werewolf in the town of Talbot. I’m assuming that writer got the name the same place we did: Universal Pictures’ The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as reluctant werewolf Larry Talbot. As homages go, it’s pretty obvious.
We’re not the first writers to come up with “secret enclave of strange beings” stories, or even the first to do a romance series involving shapeshifters. There’s a huge market for romance right now, and tons of writers with tons of ideas all looking for receptive publishers. There’s bound to be serious overlap.
Because that’s the nature of ideas. They’re raw materials, clay we dig out of the imagination mine and shape into a story. Sometimes it seems like a bunch of us latch onto the same vein of clay at the same time. All of a sudden you’ll see a flurry of stories about hidden towns populated by shapeshifters or vampires or aliens or demons or really, really sexy pagan priests who believe making love is the best form of worship. Everybody pairs up or triples up or whatever, and a good time is had by all.
Is this plagiarism? No, it’s coincidence. Ideas are free for the taking. It’s the execution, the specific way you shape the idea clay, that makes the result unique and copyrightable. You can give a dozen writers the same idea, and you’ll get a dozen totally different stories. There may be a bit of duplication, but it’ll probably be spotty. Not a cause for alarm.
Does plagiarism happen? Well, yeah. Ask Nora Roberts how she’s feeling about Janet Daily these days. Or the people who’ve posted fanfic or free stories at various venues, only to find their work lifted, word for word, by a self-published “writer” on Amazon. In this case the idea was, “let somebody else do all the hard work and then steal it.” That’s not what’s writing’s about.
Here’s a true-life coincidence. My first published romance was Coyote Moon. A female auto mechanic who doesn’t know she’s half werewolf is courted by a werecoyote. At the time I wrote and sold the story, I was completely unaware of the existence of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, about a shapeshifting female auto mechanic. Since then I’ve learned enough about the series to know we each went in totally different directions with the same essential premise, and I had no intention of turning mine into a series anyway, so legally I’m off the hook. To this day I’ve never read any of the books. However, I’ll bet there are people out there who’ve read both and believe I’m a stinking thief. Not so, but how do I prove it? I had an idea and I wrote it my way. How was I to know somebody else had the same basic idea before I did? I was new to paranormal romance and urban fantasy back then, and hadn’t read extensively enough to know what was already out there. Briggs’s lawyers never came after me, so either she isn’t aware of my book or she is aware of how general ideas float around, waiting for writers to make them specific.
Then there were the SF stories I wrote about the telepathic pterosaurs that bore more than a passing resemblance to Anne McCaffrey’s
Sure, there’s a lot of iffy stuff out there, especially in Hollywood. Back in the ‘70s producer Glen Larson (or “Glen Larceny” as he was known by a lot of working writers) had a penchant for putting shows on the air that bore more than a passing resemblance to other people’s work. Check out Larson’s cop show McCloud and the Clint Eastwood flick Coogan’s Bluff, for example. Or Battlestar Galactica (1970s version), that hit the airwaves in the wake of the phenomenal success of Star Wars. Larson swore the show was in development before George’s movie took off. Maybe it was. Maybe the same general idea hit them both.
Just like ABC and NBC both decided to create shows about fairy tale characters living in the modern world, not long after DC/Vertigo tried shopping Fables to them. Fables is a comic book series about fairy tale characters living in the modern world. Neither TV show bears much resemblance to the comic book, or to each other, for that matter. Wherever ABC and NBC got the idea, they did different things with it. Though I’m sure Fables creator Bill Willingham would love to know the source of their inspiration.
In short: you can’t copyright a basic idea. You can copyright what you do with it. If you’re “inspired” by others’ works (ask me about my obsession with Supernatural some time. Bring a lunch.) make sure to keep it just that—inspiration—and give it your voice and your personal spin. In other words, be original. If you want to write a series about a town of shapeshifters in Montana, go for it. But don’t name it Talbot’s Peak, don’t include a wolf pack feuding with a criminal organization run by an evil tiger, and don’t make the mayor a squirrel. We’re watching.