In these days of social media, it almost feels as if plagiarism doesn’t matter. How often do you see a picture or a quote retweeted, without credit given to whoever spent time and mental energy creating it in the first place? As someone who has made a living being paid by the word, it is a sensitive subject. I’ve watched payment rates for writers decrease every year, and am sure much of this is to do with the lack of respect for those who create content.
There is an argument that if we continue to devalue original content, eventually no-one will be able to afford the time to create new books, pictures, etc, and culture will just become a continual recycling of existing ideas.
But it doesn’t help if people don’t understand copyright either. I feel there is quite a lot of confusion about this – even amongst writers.
Firstly, there is no copyright on ideas. If there were, then there could only ever be one book with a ‘hero’s journey’ for instance, and we’d pretty soon run out things to write about. Arguably there are only seven or eight variations on a plot, so copywriting plot ideas would never work.
And indeed copying a plot is not a problem. If you want to write about a small person overcoming a larger evil, go ahead and do it. That’s the idea behind David and Goliath, Harry Potter, Hunger Games… each story has the same basic plot but executed in a different way with unique characters. Personally I feel Fan Fiction goes a bit too far. It does feel like an infringement, but generally it is not copying the authors’ original words but just taking the much loved characters and creating new stories for them.
Incidentally, when we think about new and original ideas, wouldn’t it have been amazing to be alive when the first novel was published? Arguably this only happened about five hundred years ago (Don Quixote is often cited as the first). When it was a ‘novel’ idea. But if you look at the development of fiction – you can see that writers have always influenced each other. Each new writer has always been influenced by what has gone before, have developed the form, pushed it forward. So for a long time there was a fashion for writing ‘epistolary’ novels (told through letters. This is rarer nowadays – perhaps not surprising given that people don’t really write letters any more). The first unreliable narrator (about fifty years ago) must have been quite a shock to the reader, but right now these are quite in vogue.
Finding new ways of writing, understanding what is on trend and what is not is an important aspect of being a writer. Not so that you can slavishly follow current trends, but you need to know about them.
Some people who write say they won’t read anything in their genre, or anything similar, while they’re writing in case they are influenced by it. I think that’s a mistake. Personally I welcome that kind of influence – learning from what is out there is important.
And dissecting a book you admire, looking at what makes it work, is a really useful exercise, and even better if you find you can copy aspects of that work – the point of view, the structure, the plot – that’s really all ok. In fact, how else would the novel have developed? So pay homage to other people’s work – just don’t plagiarise it.