Mirror, Mirror: What’s the Policy on Copycats?

(Yes, the title is a Star Trek reference, in case anyone caught that!)

I had an interesting conversation with my family the other day,

and by ‘interesting’ I mean frustrating and annoying.  This isn’t necessarily typical, but is all too common when I’m trying to talk about my writing.  Granted, it brings in no money and none of them really understand what it is I try to do, but still.  ANYWAY.  It was family dinner night, and my aunt was kind enough to mention my book and ask me how it was going.  I obliged with a shortened version, which I usually do for the aforementioned reasons.  But then I had a question.

Quite some time ago, I had what I thought was a pretty interesting idea for a book, or at least an aspect of a book.  Recently, during my down time (like in the shower or while driving,) I’ve been thinking more about the idea.  However, I had the misfortune of reading about a particular YA book series that came out in recent years, that had a… we’ll say similar idea, although by no means the same.  Regardless, I made the mistake of asking my family what they thought.

Immediately they jumped all over me.  “You can’t do that,” they all said, “don’t even think about it!  Copyright is so crazy, someone will definitely sue you.”  Which, I mean, is solid advice most of the time.  I was never the kind of person who copy-pasted things for research papers or assignments, and I wouldn’t dream of claiming credit for something someone else did.  So I quietly held up my hands and begged out of the conversation.  But it made me curious what more writerly-minded people would say on the subject.

How far is too far?  What’s considered ‘copying’ in the literature field, and what’s acceptable?  I just feel like there isn’t such a clear line as my family seems to think that there is.  After all, we all know that there isn’t a truly original idea under the sun anymore–it’s really more in how you set it up and execute it.  What about Cassandra Clare, and her whole Harry Potter debacle?  (Click the link if you’re unfamiliar with that whole big thing.)  Essentially, in tl;dr, her ‘Instruments’ series is based off of a Harry Potter fanfiction she wrote, which was in itself filled with any number of lines ripped off of OTHER shows, movies, books, etc.  AND SHE’S BEING PAID TO WRITE THEM.  And then there’s ‘Fifty Shades,’ of course, where at least author E.L. James admitted that the whole thing was basically Twilight sans vampires and plus sex scenes.  Again, making the big bucks.  (Let’s face it–people protest that Twilight was awful, but it pulls in the cash in any incarnation.)

                           

So, my point is, when very blatant rip-offs, fanfictions, etc of stories can be published–as long as the names are changed, and maybe the setting tweaked a bit–is there really anything off limits?  While my family, who are very moral and upright citizens protest that I can’t write anything that might even be mistaken for something else, does the rest of the world have the same scruples?  And can writers even afford to start worrying about this, when there are billions of billions of books in the world, and the chances that we’re not copying SOMETHING are slimmer than Kate Moss?

There’s no right or wrong answer here, necessarily, I’m just interested in what other people think.  So give me your impressions!  As a writer who is also an avid reader, I run into this problem all the time–other books that have bits and pieces of things that I had wanted to write about, or that I thought were SO original, and now I feel guilty about writing them.  Is that guilt founded?  Or should I be congratulated for at least TRYING to put my own spin on things?

All my <3,

Celeste

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3 thoughts on “Mirror, Mirror: What’s the Policy on Copycats?

  1. It’s tough to say, of course, but there’s likely not going to be any LEGAL ramifications if you have a similar concept; most functional stories have similar plots, anyways. I walked through a YA Fic section in a library recently and noticed that 50% were Vampire/Werewolf based, so, as long as you don’t mind a few people calling you a copycat, it’s fine. Maybe you can do it better!

    I went through a similar thing with songwriting when I was young, but realized that there kindof are a limited number of structures, lyrics etc. that most people will be able to enjoy and connect with—to go out too far from the normal, you risk losing readership! Just some thoughts. Cool post, definitely something I think about.

    • Thank you! Yes, I don’t think it’s so much the technical legal copyright infringement, but just how well you can turn a plot on its ear and make it yours!
      Thank you, I thought it was, too. 🙂 I hate when I have ideas and find out that there is something even slightly similar, because then I’m like, I know about it! I could have claimed ignorance before. x)

  2. Try not to worry so much about it. Using similar ideas, even in an almost tribute like fashion, is still original writing; it’s just very influenced original writing. Trying to turn fanfics into truly original works, it think, is treading a dangerous path, and I don’t think I’d accept that as okay unless it’s not tweaking, but heavy modification going on. Anyway, people like to read what they like. Coming up with entirely-entirely new ideas, I think, borders on the impossible, and even if it happens, what’s the likelihood that anyone truly loves and identifies with this? Plucking ideas you and others love from all around and giving it a highly personal spin, I think, is a good way to go, and I certainly don’t think it’s plagiarism.

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