Saturday, July 25, 2009

Plagiarism Is Ten Letter Word

In almost any writing group, someone will ask a question about plagiarism in an effort to clarify a somewhat confusing subject. Almost immediately, the answer will come back that plagiarism is the misappropriation of another person’s work. They will give the entry in the dictionary, along with those little symbols that warm the heart of a grammarian, but are difficult to type. The next round of questions and answers always involves copyright and trademark. This is the point where I want to head to the nearest bolt-hole and cover my ears. The person asking the original question only wants to know why some writers feel free to explore subjects other writers have written about, while others seem to be overly cautious and inhibited. So I am going to answer the question that never gets answered. It centers on what is original and what is open to artistic interpretation.

Titles are not copyrightable, but you already knew that. You may be wondering why people get sued when they fool around with their favorite character, who might be named Harry Potter. This is where trademark comes in. Harry Potter is more than a character in a copyrighted story. He, along with his friends, is an industry, and you can’t capture him and keep him for your own. The guys who create posters, music, and all of the other trade goods, are making money, and they don’t want you standing in front of the machines while they stamp out the dollar bills. But enough of this. Let’s talk about something interesting.

Not too long ago, I witnessed a terrible sling-fest between two writers who were accusing each other of stealing material from the other’s blog. Somewhere in the pauses between the shin kicking and the hair pulling, one of them uttered that terrible word— lawsuit. I was not surprised at the way this catfight turned out. Someone found the ‘original’ article on a third-party website, and gave the address where it could be read in its entirety. I have a feeling the whole problem was the fault of their muses, who just happened to be on the same wavelength.

One of the things—and probably the most important detail about creative fiction—is what we call plot. Plots are not copyrightable. Yes, you read that correctly. You cannot copyright a plot. Each and every one of them date back to the days when people lived in caves. The most stirring moment in their society was when the traveling storyteller arrived at irregular intervals. Milton Berle, the popular humorist from the early days of television, said there were only twenty-three jokes, and all of them were used over and over during the days of Vaudeville. He would challenge the members of his audience to tell him what they thought was an original joke. He would then give them the original from the Vaudeville circuit, plus the identity of the person who used it in their act. Fiction writers are luckier in this respect. Someone once listed the various types of plots found in fiction, and they could only come up with thirty-six. There is Escape, Challenging Obstacles, Barriers to Love, Revolt, Hatred of a Friend or Family Member—to name a few. If you think it is more complicated, then sit down with an armload of best selling novels and carefully analyze the stories. You can’t find a better exercise for preparing your own story for submission. What is your story really about? Despite the many sub-plots, a story can be condensed to one sentence, and you need this for the back of the book. Find a comfortable chair and kick back for an hour or two. I will leave it to you to dig out the plot.

1 comment:

The Belle in Blue said...

Great topic and interesting points, Joe. IMO, one of the biggest newbie signs is plagiarism paranoia!