Thursday, July 30, 2015
License to Steal
Last week during our discussion of AU fan fiction, we briefly touched on the subject of plagiarism. I insisted what I was doing—writing stories while picturing certain actors/characters as the leads, with nothing else in common with the original TV show/inspiration—wasn't stealing. I don't see how it could be, given those parameters, but I'm not a lawyer and I don't think like one. Both DC and Marvel Comics say you can't call your costumed characters "superheroes" any more, and don't get me started on Disney. I'm not taking any chances of getting slapped with a cease-and-desist.
Except for what I'm about to discuss.
I've noticed a form of plagiarism that appears to be okay. You're still taking somebody else's words and using them as yours, but people shrug and look the other way. I've seen it done on TV, in movies, and in print. I've done it myself. Nobody's come banging on my door in the middle of the night. Yet.
Here's my personal tale of filching: My first published novel (as opposed to short story or novella) was the romance A London Werewolf in America. My werewolf hero came to Philadelphia and fell in love with a (human) witch. It was established right from the get-go that the werewolves referred to humans as monkeys, apes, simians, primates, and words of that nature. Shapeshifter speciesism. You get the picture.
Then I got to the part where an alpha wolf's brother gets shot. The brother's dying. The alpha's going berserk. The witch tries to help. She's human, and the shooter was human. The alpha's on the brink of attacking her.
And all of a sudden that famous line from Planet of the Apes lodges in my brain and won't go away. I couldn't help it. I had to put it in. The witch is up to her wrists in werewolf blood and the alpha screams at her, "Take your stinking paws off him, you damn dirty ape!"
What the hell. It fit in context. I figured if there was a problem, the editor would let me know about it.
The editor did mention it, but it was more of a "I see what you did here" than a "take that the hell out, you bloody thief." We had a laugh over it. I left it in. So did the editor. The book came out, got good reviews, and nobody brought it up, least of all the lawyers for 20th Century Fox.
Later in that same book the witch and her werewolf boyfriend capture and question one of the bad guys. "Bite me, chickie," he tells her. "And your little dog, too." The editor didn't even comment on that one. Neither did anyone else.
But it's still stealing, right? Those aren't my words. They are obviously not my words. I think that's one of the reasons I was able to get away with it.
The other reason is, the book under discussion was intended as a comedy. That seems to be the magic Get Out of Jail Free card in these circumstances. If you're writing a comedy, a spoof, or a satire, you can get away with almost anything. There were enough original gags, one-liners, setups and humorous situations in London Werewolf (even the title is a play on John Landis's movie title, An American Werewolf in London) that the Apes line came across as just another punchline. Because it and the Wizard of Oz line are so well-known, there's no question I lifted them. Everybody already knows from where. I'm not trying to put anything over on anybody. My thievery is right out there in the open for all to see, and I'm using it to get laughs. Make people laugh and they'll forgive you for a little literary snatch-and-grab.
I think the winner of the Pilferage Sweepstakes has to be the classic "Do you feel lucky?" speech from Dirty Harry. One time I saw variations on it on two different TV shows in the same week. One was a cartoon. (Specifically, the old '90s X-Men cartoon show. Specifically, Wolverine. Wolverine was born to sneer, "Do you feel lucky?" at people. Batman was born to growl, "Go ahead. Make my day." Which he did, in an issue of Batman and the Outsiders.) I even saw a version of it used, with dragons, in a Discworld novel by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett. Pratchett was a satiric genius. Are you going to try to convince me he was a plagiarist?
Of course he wasn't. Neither am I or any of the other writers whose works I noted above. Neither was the guy who used the Wizard of Oz line before I did, in a Dungeons and Dragons novel, of all places. Yes, it was a humorous one. Yes, we all knew what he was referring to. That's what makes the joke funny.
It's when you take other writers' words—sometimes by the paragraph—and deliberately try to pass them off as your own that the law has to step in. 50 Shades of Grey was not plagiarism, in spite of its origins. E. L. James lifted Stephenie Meyer's storytelling techniques, not her words. She changed the characters before she changed their names. That guy who wrote a spy novel by cobbling together scenes and sometimes whole chapters from other, published spy novels, including some James Bond books, was a plagiarist. The people who lift entire books off Amazon or fanfic sites, change the character names and then slap their own bylines on them and try to sell them are not only plagiarists, they should be burned at the stake. And their little dogs, too.
Meanwhile, I've been toying with the idea of whether or not it's possible to write an entire novel using only movie quotes. It would have to be a humor book, of course. One of those novelty books where you see how many of the quotes you can guess the origin of. Which means every single line in the book would need to be identified in the back, so you can check your answers. Which pretty much defeats the purpose of plagiarism.
Forget it. That's way too much trouble. Somebody else can do it. I'm going to go write something original. And don't even think about stealing it, you damn dirty ape.