Stealing Thunder (and other copyright sins)

stealing thunder

Original post: 23rd April 2014

April 23rd is known to many across the globe as World Book Day but its full (and perhaps lesser-known) title is WorldBook and Copyright Day. This year, instead of giving you all a list of novels I highly recommend, I thought I’d focus more on the latter part of the celebration.

fifty-shades-of-grey-cac1d39d5bb5c20810b1314bcbf61dee35d8219b-s6-c30As the world unites tonight behind books, cast your mind to your favourite author. This is a person – or perhaps there are several people – who worked tirelessly to bring you the joy of reading and their idea(s) will forever be etched in your memory and imagination.

Copyright can sometimes seem to be a ‘dirty word’ among book reviews. With the rise of fan-fiction-come-popular-publications (particular examples being Fifty Shades of Grey and The Mortal Instruments series), the question of copyright is becoming a prevalent topic among readers and writers alike. What is the difference between an homage and plagiarism? To whom does original ‘copyright’ belong, and what exactly does that mean? Is there such a thing as an ‘original’ idea? Can an idea truly be owned?

“There is no such thing as originality, just authenticity.”
– Helene Hegemann, author of Axolotl Roadkill.

Christopher Brooker’s 2004 publication ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘ indicates that every story can be attributed to one of the following plot archetypes: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, Rebirth. From myths and fairy tales, to Shakespeare, to modern classics, to Modernism, we should all be able to slot any book into one of these categories. Name a Shakespeare play, it has a place. The Harry Potter books can be attributed to several of them. The Lord of the Rings, The Fault in Our Stars, My Sister’s Keeper, 1984, Pride and Prejudice, even The Very Hungry Caterpillar… all are plots found within the Basic Seven.

So, what makes a story unique?

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623Using Brooker as evidence, some could argue that no story is unique. If this is the case, and each tale is a rehash of plots set down long ago, what gives one author the right to claim it as their own over another? Was James Joyce’s Ulysses just fanfiction of Homer’s Odyssey? Was Bridget Jones’ Diary an homage to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or just plain story theft?

There is a line drawn in the sand and, lately, it’s becoming harder to see. Fifty Shades of Grey, love it or hate it, became popular partly due to its association with Meyer’s Twilight. Many reviewers picked up on the fact that Fifty Shades began as Twilight fanfiction. Although this wasn’t an official marketing technique, one may wonder if the PR department had anything to do with the prevalence of this knowledge on the internet. Yet, that is not for me to cynically surmise. The facts remain: this information was freely accessible (as much as wildfire spreads) and Fifty Shades booksales quickly rivalled Meyer’s Twilight success (both having sold over 100 million worldwide).

It also divided opinion of the well-trod topic of ‘fanfiction’. Authors have offered opinions on this subject for years: Anne Rice is steadfastly against fanfiction of her work, JK Rowling believes it has value. When asked to speak on the topic of Fifty Shades, Twilight’s Stephanie Meyer is quoted as saying, “[Without ‘Twilight’, ‘Fifty Shades’]… might not exist in the exact form that it’s in […but…] obviously she had a story in her, and so it would have come out in some other way.”

mortal_instruments_city_of_bones_book_cover-398x600Honestly, I’m not a fan of either series, but I’d always thought that publishing fanfiction for money was tantamount to plagiarism. This was until, half-way through a semi-informed rant about copyright to a friend, I was called a hypocrite: I am an unabashed fan of The Mortal Instruments, after all, and ‘didn’t [I] know that that was originally Harry Potter fanfiction’? [link]

No. I hadn’t known, because Cassandra Clare’s series is only vaguely recognisable as Harry Potter fanfiction if you already know it started out that way. The same can be claimed of Fifty Shades. Both series brought new elements, new plot points, new twists and (arguably) new characters to the stories that were inspired by already existing, popular novels. So, knowing this, do Fifty Shades and Mortal Instruments still count as fanfiction?

I would say no. When a book or story evolves from original conception into something ‘of its own’, I don’t believe it can count as fanfiction any longer. Otherwise, all those novels I mentioned before could be dismissed as fanfiction of similar predecessors instead of a ‘retelling’. Everything you’ve ever loved reading that was published after the invention of the Printing Press is now regurgitated word soup.

Other Copyright Sins – A Cautionary TalebiygaM4iL

As a sidenote to the article above, I’d like to highlight a cautionary tale about copyright and author ownership.

When a book is published, who owns the rights? I worked for a time at HarperCollins Rights and Marketing Department and the understanding I gleaned from the (basic) author contracts I viewed was this:

  • The publishing house retains the right to publish and distribute the author’s work.
  • The author retains the copyright on the story, characters, and future works derived from them.
  • Both parties see a (negotiable) portion of the sales profits.

Seem fair? I think that seems fair. And yet, this is not always the case. The reading world would kick up a storm if JK Rowling lost the rights to Harry Potter and was banned from writing with the characters anymore, even if she wanted to. Just think: they could make a hit television show with the characters she created, and she’d not see a penny. What a nightmare situation. Can you imagine?

That’s exactly what happened to LJ Smith, author of ‘the original Vampire Diaries’. Due to the terms of her contract, signed many years ago when she was young, little fish in a big publishing ocean, LJ Smith sees none of the profits from the hit television show ‘The Vampire Diaries’. She is also banned from writing any more ‘Vampire Diaries’ novels – forced, in fact, to market any TVD stories as ‘fanfiction’ of her original work.

As a writer who dearly loves her characters, I can think of nothing more chilling for an author to experience.

The moral of this story: Always take a lawyer/agent with you to Rights negotiations, and don’t sign anything until you’re sure it’s exactly what you want.

Go on, let me know what you think!

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