Monday, April 6, 2015

"Stealing" Ideas

Image courtesy of chanpipat at
What would you say if I told you that you could rip off major plot points from other sources and get away with it?

Would you say, “But that’s stealing and violating copyright laws”?

Would you say, “That would make me an unoriginal hack writer”?

What about, “People will know it’s a rip-off and no one will like my story?”

Let’s break this down.

“That’s stealing and violates copyright laws.”

Copyright laws are dodgy things. If you write a story that is basically exactly the same as somebody else’s, using the same characters (even if you change their names), then you have violated copyright laws. There’s no way around this. But if you were to look at Lois Lowry’s The Giver and think that forced hormonal therapy is an interesting concept, and you decide to use that in your story, that is not violating copyright laws.  You’ll probably want to do your take on forced hormonal therapy differently – that’s why it’s your take on it.

But isn’t it still stealing?

Let me tell you a secret. Nothing is original. Nada. Zilch. Zero.  Have you ever heard of William Shakespeare, a man still hailed today as a master of literary genius?

Yeah, he ripped off a bunch of other stories to make his plays.

So, yes, maybe it is ‘stealing’ story elements, but don’t think of it as stealing. Think of it as ‘drawing inspiration’ from another source. It’s not immoral or illegal – not the way that selling a story with Frodo the Hobbit in it would be.

I promise you, even if you come up with an idea all by yourself, the likelihood of seeing that somebody else has done something similar is really high. Does that mean you’re stealing? No. It just means that somebody else had a similar idea to you. Nobody has a monopoly on ideas, and nobody can copyright an idea like forced hormonal therapy. 

Now, if you put it in the exact configuration as The Giver, well…that’s  different story. Then it does become stealing.

You see, there is a definite difference between stealing and drawing inspiration from a source. It might seem fuzzy, but it is definitely there.

“That would make me an unoriginal hack writer.”

Was William Shakespeare a hack? The debate on this rages, but most people think highly of Shakespeare. Would you say Suzanne Collins is a hack? She borrowed a lot of elements for The Hunger Games from Roman history. Oh, and have you ever of J.R.R. Tolkien, a man widely regarded as the father of modern fantasy? He lifted a lot of stuff from Norse mythology. Does that make him an unoriginal hack writer? What about Rowling? Harry Potter took a bunch of stuff out of mythology, too.

So, what is it that makes these authors original, if they have so much unoriginal stuff in their writing?

It’s the way that things are configured. It’s sort of like starting with a ball of yarn. Give five different people a ball of yarn and tell them to knit a scarf. At least one of those scarves will be different than the others. It’s all about the way you tell your story – the way you spin a yarn, if you will. Yours will be unique, because it’s told by you, and you’ll make sure to tell it in a way nobody else has told it. That’s where the originality comes in.

As long as you tell the story your own unique way, you won’t be a hack.

“People will know it’s a rip-off and no one will like my story.”

Okay. This is just patently false.

Tolkien practically has a cult following, even after his death.

Shakespeare is studied in schools all around the world.

People liked their stories. Even though they heavily borrowed from other sources.

So what is it that really brings the originality to these stories – what is it that makes them original?

Two major things: setting and character.

I’ll give you an example – and this was what gave me the idea for this blog post in the first place.  This story begins with me admitting to the fact that I occasionally watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. (I’ve collected ponies since I was four, and I just never stopped liking them.)

Courtesy of Used for review purposes only.
On Saturday, a new season of My Little Pony started, and I decided to watch. It was actually a really interesting episode. The main characters went to a village where everybody had the same cutie mark. If you don’t watch the show, suffice it to say that cutie marks reflect each pony’s individuality and special talents.

Everybody had the same cutie mark so that no one was special.

Nobody had special talents, so that nobody was better than anyone else.

Everybody had to think the same way and have the same beliefs.

Is this starting to sound familiar?  The more the episode unfolded, the more this town started to look communist. They even called it a ‘utopia’ in one of the songs. But it was clear that it was anything but a utopia. It was a classic dystopia, vaguely reminiscent of 1984 and Animal Farm. Nobody could say anything that went against the status quo, and if somebody did, the other ponies were supposed to rat them out.

It started to have even more elements of dystopian novels, such as brainwashing. The main characters were locked in a room and forced to listen to a loud recording of what they were supposed to believe – things like “To excel is to fail” and various other maxims of this dystopian society.
Finally, the leader of everything was revealed to have her own unique cutie mark, which she kept hidden from everybody else. The first thing that came to mind when I saw that was, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” (That’s from George Orwell’s Animal Farm.) This pony argued that she had to have her special talent so that everybody else could ‘enjoy’ life without theirs. That made me think of Napoleon from Animal Farm, who argued that he had to have more power so that everybody else could live in harmony.
So yeah. An entire episode of My Little Pony that basically took classic dystopian novels, put them through the grinder, and reshaped them. They didn’t even try to be the least bit subtle about it. It was super obvious where they were getting this stuff from.
But you know what? I loved it. I bet the other adults who watched it still loved it. I bet the kids who watched the show loved it.  So what makes is special and unique?
Because it’s a show about frickin’ talking horses! With songs and dance routines! With magic! It’s the characters and the setting that makes it what it is, that makes it fresh and fun and original, even when it’s obviously a rip-off.
So there you have it. Don’t freak out if your idea is similar to someone else’s. Draw inspiration from other places all you want – just be unique in the way that you put it together.
 Don’t use talking, dancing, magical, brightly colored horses, though. I think that might have been done already.
What do you think about the idea of ‘ripping off’ other sources? Share your thoughts in the comments. 

Like this? Don’t forget to share! You can also follow me on Twitter: @ALSVossler
Want to get my posts sent straight to your inbox? Use the form in the sidebar to subscribe.

No comments:

Post a Comment