This sounds really familiar...
November 30, 2009 12:56 PM   Subscribe

How do authors ensure that they aren't copying older stories?

Is there a process that authors go through when fleshing out (fictional) works? Is this the publisher's responsibility? Do they ask around?

I would imagine that an author would want to know as soon as possible whether or not the plot of his story resembled a film or book already published. And while he or she may know of many works, it's impossible to be familiar with all of them.

For example, if a writer says "I know! I'll write a book about a nerdy journalist who goes back to high school and gets a second chance at love!". Hopefully they have a friend that says, "Dude, that was Never Been Kissed. Try again". But what if they don't? Does this happen often? Is there some sort of "plot database" in existence?

I'm not referring to deliberate parody or spoofs on classic works, more of a general and unintentional similarity.
posted by amicamentis to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It doesn't matter, because there are only seven possible plots for all stories, anyway.
posted by meadowlark lime at 1:01 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

The closest thing is probably TV Tropes, but even then, we're generally talking about a shared culture here, where no one has any sort of "right" to a particular plot. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: "Genre writing is like a stew, some people add things, some people take things out, but everyone stirs the pot".
posted by Oktober at 1:02 PM on November 30, 2009

Are you concerned about wasted effort or legality? In the US at least, independent creation is a defense to copyright infringement.
posted by jedicus at 1:04 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Generally, if an author is approaching a project in good faith, even if the premise is similar, the execution will be so different as to render the point moot.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:05 PM on November 30, 2009

General and (un)intentional similarity in books and movies is common and doesn't appear to be particularly problematic, legally. Judging from the glee with which consumers vacuum up entertainment rife with stale plots and sentiments, it doesn't appear to hurt a work's marketability, either.

Copyright violation is a no-no, of course, and that includes copying not just the exact words of another, but literary or artistic creations, as well. I can't write (then sell) a non-parodical story with two hobbits named Srodo and Fam who journey to Dormor to destroy the One Necklace (though now that I've written it, that all sounds like parody), but I can write a story about two non-human characters who travel in a fantastic world threatened by an evil object of unfathomable power. Actually, that sounds a lot like the plot for many successful series of fantasy books...
posted by jingzuo at 1:08 PM on November 30, 2009

Response by poster: So would a publisher even mention possible similarities to a writer? I'm talking more about wasted effort, not from a legal standpoint. I personally would not want to write a book that was super close in plot to a previous work, especially if it was recent and popular. How do writers make sure that they aren't replicating, if at all?
posted by amicamentis at 1:10 PM on November 30, 2009

Writers should be readers.

That said, sometimes you get scooped by someone else. You find out about it either when the other book that's exactly like yours comes out, or when the agents you submit your manuscript to (or the editors to which your agent submits your manuscript) reject it because it's too much like another book that's coming out soon.

There's no registry or anything. You just have to keep up in your field. And, as others have said, obviously there are lots of books and movies that have the same basic plots--Never Been Kissed owed a lot to Shann Nix's real-life book about being a journalist who went undercover as a high school student, which owed a lot to Cameron Crowe's real-life book about being a journalist who went undercover as a high school student, which probably owes to something which owes to something which goes back to someone's book about going undercover as a student of Socrates.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:28 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Background: I'm an editor, working for a publisher. I acquire (or, more often, reject) books.

So would a publisher even mention possible similarities to a writer?

To some random writer submitting to us? No. Someone would read your synopsis, and maybe your first few pages, and then they'd think "oh, god, another knockoff of [Twilight/True Blood/Buffy the Vampire Slayer/other popular television show, movie, or book]," and then they would send you a form letter that says something along the lines of "Thank you for your interest in placing your book with [company]. After careful consideration, we have decided this project is not right for us at this time."

If you were an author with whom I had worked previously and you sent something that was derivative, I'd probably shoot you a note saying "John Hughes already made this movie," or "Do you realize that you've lifted the plot, characters, and setting from [this other book]?" And then I'd politely reject the manuscript and suggest that you work on something else, or that you change the record store to an clothing outlet and music snobbery to fashion snobbery or whatever.

How do writers make sure that they aren't replicating, if at all?

You read. As much as you can. You stay aware of pop culture, and of the classics, and of what's come out recently in your genre. This is also what editors do.

Like Meadowlark Lime said above, there's a finite number of plots out there--a similar plot isn't a big deal. It's when you have two or more similarities that you start to have trouble: similar plot, similar characters, similar setting. You can get away with setting your story on a Hellmouth, but then your heroine needs to be a thirty-something demon, maybe. Or you can have a blonde high school student who has a mystical calling, but she needs to be living in New York or Australia or some tiny city in Minnesota, and her mystical calling is to reunite an ancient sect of warrior women. Or plot...hell, how many books or movies aren't retelling of Romeo and Juliet? But look at Buffy, or Twilight, or West Side story, and realize that they all have the same romantic plot, but are executed in totally different ways.

You're always going to be replicating something from somewhere. The trick is to take that replication and twist it so that it's yours.
posted by MeghanC at 1:34 PM on November 30, 2009 [6 favorites]

In addition to MeghanC's notes that if your project is too similar we'll just send you a form letter, I'd like to add that the contract that authors sign with a publising house includes a warranty that their work is original and free from violations of copyright or intellectual property, and in the case of memoirs, really and truly happened (see also: The Apple, A Million Little Pieces).

So if the author is lying to the publisher and trying to pass off work that's not really theirs, the publisher is protected from lawsuits--although if the work is really that similar, the publisher will almost always notice before publication. If the author really and truly believes that their work is original and/or falls within fair use/parody/seven plots of similarity (ie, they legitimately do not know of a story that is so similar to theirs as to cause a problem), then the author is claiming this as fact and it's likely to be held up as such.

Basically, it's the author's responsibility to make sure this story hasn't been told before. The publisher's responsibility is to try to keep the title original.

I've heard of cases where someone comes out of the woodwork claiming so-and-so stole their plot, but it's rarely been true. There are a lot of unhappy coincidences out there.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:01 PM on November 30, 2009

Check out the Wikipedia entry for "Life of Pi"- - and read the section called "allegation of plagiarism". As you will see, although the author of Life of Pi had heard of an earlier work with a similar scenario, the two authors were able to settle the matter amicably.
posted by LauraJ at 2:04 PM on November 30, 2009

jedicus, the problem with the independent creation argument is that the counterargument is so easily established: those claiming that another has unfairly used their work effectively need only show that there's a similarity and that the purported copier had access at some point to the original. An early ruling on the topic found (essentially as a matter of fact, although I'm not sure how the judge managed it) that George Harrison, when writing "My Sweet Lord", had committed "subconscious plagiarism" of an earlier tune.
posted by Picklegnome at 2:22 PM on November 30, 2009

My creative writing teacher told me: "Writers have larcenous hearts."

Ain't no new stories out there anyhow, just new ways of tellin' em'.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 4:11 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

From a literary criticism perspective, repetitions, echoes, citations, etc. are assumed to be part of the creative heart of literature. Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva wrote about a phenomenon called intertextuality (be wary of wikipedia for lit. crit., but here's the link). They more or less argued that all texts are mosaics, comprised of bits and pieces absorbed, whether consciously or not, from all texts existing beforehand. All literature, in other words, is always already written and read.

I should say, though, that this "lack" of originality is generally treated as an abundance. Literature is richer because it mimics, borrows and steals.

The actual difference between mimicry, borrowing and theft, however, is a very complicated issue. There may be clear lines in a legal sense, but there is little consensus among literary theorists.
posted by ndicecco at 4:19 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a writer. I write humor instead of novels, but I think many of the same premises apply.

I do worry about imitating stuff I've read. I don't worry so much about imitating stuff I haven't read.

Here's an example. A long while ago I read the Bill Bixby Memorial Haiku Bake-Off, a collection of haikus about Bill Bixby. I thought it was funny. I certainly wouldn't run my own list of Bill Bixby haiku after reading it. But where do I draw the line? Would it be plagiarism to run a list of Patrick Swayze memorial haiku? Or put together a blog dedicated to celebrity haiku? Or just write a bunch of funny haiku in general?

Well, people have done all of those things -- including the Patrick Swayze haiku -- and I don't think they're dirty plagiarists. The intersection of celebrity and haiku is a natural source of humor. Still, I personally would feel weird about running any sort of dead celebrity memorial haiku contest, just because I know that I personally would be cribbing from the Bill Bixby contest.

The point is that it's a fuzzy line even when you know your influences. You can drive yourself nuts trying to make something that's completely different from anything you've ever read. Calvin and Hobbes is an amazingly original and inventive strip, but if I had come up with it I might never have done it out of an unfounded fear that I was ripping off Dennis the Menace and Peanuts.

Anyhow, if you try and extend that sphere of concern to things you haven't read? That's insanity right there. If I went and researched every idea I had to make sure nobody had ever done anything vaguely like it, I'd never get anything written. A few years ago I wrote a "What if World of Warcraft was a text adventure?" column. I don't believe I had ever read a "modern video game rendered as a text adventure" bit before, but I'd be surprised if nobody in the history of the world had ever done it. However, I knew it was my own idea that I came up independently, and I knew that I have my own sense of humor and would do it differently than anyone else, so I wrote it with no hesitation.

Since then, I've seen several "video game as text adventure" bits. I sincerely doubt they're imitating me, and even if they were, I wouldn't call it plagiarism. It's just a natural source of humor to render new things in the style of old things.

So there you have one writer's perspective. It's possible to consciously or unconsciously rip someone else off, but it's also possible to worry so much about it that you paralyze yourself.
posted by lore at 5:20 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

How do authors ensure that they aren't copying older stories?

They work on their own stories really hard, so that by the time they're done, they contain insight and observations and quirks that reflect the writer's own life and perspective

I would imagine that an author would want to know as soon as possible whether or not the plot of his story resembled a film or book already published.

Not really, because the answer would always be "Yes, it does." How depressing.

For example, if a writer says "I know! I'll write a book about a nerdy journalist who goes back to high school and gets a second chance at love!". Hopefully they have a friend that says, "Dude, that was Never Been Kissed. Try again".

The real hope is that the friend would say "Oh, okay. It's an 'adult goes back to high school' movie. There are ten quintillion of those, six billion of which have come out in the last month. Go on..." and wait to hear more.

Is there some sort of "plot database" in existence?

If there was, then imagine all the great stuff we'd be missing out on. It would have sucked for Shakespeare to realize that the star-crossed lovers thing had already been done, or for John Hughes to realize the 'dorky high school guy gets the girl' had been done, or for Cameron Crowe to realize that John Hughes existed.
posted by bingo at 9:11 PM on November 30, 2009

« Older Ideas for a place in L.A. to host a large...   |   Romance! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.