Is Writing Fiction From A News Story Plagiarism?

Suppose you see a news story and you think, “Wow, that would make a terrific novel!” Are you a plagiarist if you base your novel on that story?

Chloe posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have an idea for a novel that was inspired by a news story that was published a couple of years ago. The only thing I’d like to use is the plot, because in my novel the setting will be changed to some imagined future (instead of a historical event) and none of the characters in the news story will be recognizable (I will be creating my own characters).

Here are my questions:

a) Is using a plot in that manner considered plagiarism?
b) Should I be concerned about about getting into any legal trouble for using a plot I’ve read in the news?
c) Do I have to give credit to the source of my idea, and say that the novel is “inspired by real events”?

Thanks! I look forward to your reply.

Randy sez: A fascinating question. Since it’s essentially a legal question, I first have to give you the standard disclaimer that I’m not a lawyer, I am not giving legal advice, and you should consult a qualified lawyer for all legal opinions.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, on to the question. As I understand it, plagiarism is not about reusing a plot you’ve seen somewhere else. There just aren’t that many plot ideas out there. People reuse plot ideas all the time.

Plagiarism is about reusing another person’s words. If you are using somebody else’s expression of a concept, then you need to at least give them credit (if your usage falls within the “fair use” guidelines). If you want to use more than “fair use” allows, then you need to get permission. You can look up the rules online for what constitutes “fair use.”

Taking over the basic sequence of events from a news event is not plagiarism (assuming you’re not planning to use the news report verbatim, which you apparently aren’t). It may be a few other things, if you’re not careful:

  1. It might conceivably be invasion of privacy, if the news story didn’t reveal the identities of the characters, and if your presentation of the characters might reveal their true identity. But that’s not the case here.
  2. It might possibly be so close to the real events that it isn’t really fiction, it’s actually non-fiction. But that’s not the case here either.
  3. If the news story was broadcast widely enough, and if it was sensational enough, it might already be the storyline of numerous other novels and movies, in which case yours would be considered nothing new. But it sounds like this wasn’t a widely-publicized story and you’re changing the setting and characters enough that this probably isn’t an issue.

I have many novelist friends on various e-mail loops, and sometimes when there’s a bizarre story in the news, one of them will post it on a loop with the comment, “This would make a great novel.” It’s not uncommon for one of the other writers to immediately call dibs on it. Which is not actually possible, because a news story is fair game for anyone, so long as you don’t invade anyone’s privacy.

Given all that, Chloe, I’d say you’ve got nothing to worry about except the quality of your writing, which is the same thing all writers worry about. So get working on it and have fun!

You asked if you should say in your novel that it’s “inspired by real events.” It depends how closely it tracks with reality. If you intended your novel to be a novelization of a real-life story (in which case you might need to buy the rights to the story from one of the people who were in it), then it would make sense to include the tag about being inspired by real events. But if you change the characters and the setting, as you intend to do, then I don’t see any reason to draw attention to the source of your inspiration.

Bear in mind that many historical novelists write entire series of novels based on real historical events with at least some real historical characters. This has never been considered plagiarism (unless the author were to quote entire long sections from ancient historians, which would be too boring for words, because ancient historians didn’t know how modern fiction works). In this case, it’s always assumed that the story is inspired at least partly by reality. Authors rarely say so, unless the events are so unbelievable that readers might say, “No way, that could never happen!”

My own CITY OF GOD series is set in ancient Jerusalem and brings in several real characters from history, such as the apostle Paul and James the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Like all historical novelists, I have my own vision for who these characters were. My vision is different from every other novelist’s vision, so I don’t worry much about other novelists who might use these same characters. (I hope to release this series in e-book form later this year and then add a few more books to the series.)

In RETRIBUTION, the third book in this series, I felt it necessary to explain that the most horribly shocking sequence of scenes in the novel actually happened. In the spring of AD 66, certain young Jewish rabble-rousers in Jerusalem publicly mocked Caesar and the Roman governor, Gessius Florus. The governor retaliated by sending out soldiers onto the streets of Jerusalem to arrest hundreds of innocent people and crucify them on the spot without a trial. According to the historian Josephus, who was there, Florus had about 3600 men, women, children, and even infants crucified in one day. The number is probably an exaggeration, but no historian doubts that a large number of innocent people were tortured and killed all in one day. However, this incident isn’t commonly known, and it’s so horrific that I included a note at the beginning of the novel to make it clear that this actually happened. As retribution. For an insult.

Bottom line, Chloe, is that the only reason I can think of for adding a note that your story is based on real events would be if the story is so massively unbelievable that you need to remind people that truth really is stranger than fiction.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

12 Comments

  1. Anabelle August 9, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    Gustave Flaubert’s most famous work, Madame Bovary, is based on an obscure provincial news story he read one day.

    Writers have a great impulse to go beyond the news and try to understand the story behind it. Who were the people involved? How did the situation come about? What happened after? There’s so much to explore.

  2. Iola August 9, 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    If you look at ‘The Chase’ by Diann Mills, you will see that the story is based on a real cold case. So, yes, authors do this all the time.

    But I do agree with the example above: if your plot includes miracles or anything really unbelievable, then put in an author note to explain that yes, it really happened.

  3. Jon Jackson August 9, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    A few years back a couple of researchers tried to sue Dan Brown over his use of their theory in Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. The judge ruled in favor of Brown and I haven’t heard any thing since.

    From Wikipedia:

    “In early 2006, Baigent and Leigh filed suit against Brown’s publishers, Random House. They alleged that significant portions of The Da Vinci Code were plagiarized from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, violating their copyright. Brown confirmed during the court case that he named the principle Grail expert of his story “Leigh Teabing”, an anagram of “Baigent Leigh”, after the two plaintiffs. In reply to the suggestion that Lincoln was also referenced, as he has medical problems resulting in a severe limp, like the character of Leigh Teabing, Brown stated he was unaware of Lincoln’s illness and the correspondence was a coincidence.

    Because Baigent and Leigh had presented their conclusions as historical research, not as fiction, Justice Peter Smith, who presided over the trial, deemed that a novelist must be free to use these ideas in a fictional context, and ruled against Baigent and Leigh. Smith also hid his own secret code in his written judgement, in the form of seemingly random italicized letters in the 71-page document, which apparently spell out a message. Smith indicated he would confirm the code if someone broke it. Baigent and Leigh appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Court of Appeal.”

    The short answer is that I agree with Randy.

  4. Pat Nurse August 10, 2012 at 6:16 am #

    The story I wrote at the link below called The Confession was based on a true life historical crime story but the only two aspects that I used were that a woman was hanged for poisoning her husband and a farmer allegedly confessed to the crime on his deathbed years later. The rest between was completely from my imagination so I don’t think there can be any plagiarism there – especially as it was essentially a court story and as such is in the public domain.

    http://patstoriesandtales.blogspot.co.uk/p/fiction.html

  5. Don August 10, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    And wasn’t there a Cohen brothers that put the idea in reverse: the plot was totally made up, but they made included elements that led many to say it was based on a true story?

    Compare, too, the Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds.

    Or the novelist character in World According to Garp, that he wasn’t satisfied until his prose sounded believable as a true story.

  6. Don August 10, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Cohen brothers movie (Fargo, possibly)

  7. Mary Potter August 10, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Numerous “Law and Order” episodes were inspired by real news stories — with the usual disclaimer that all characters are fictional. Quite often the original true story is recognizable, but the writers for L&O put their own spin on it to make it a different tale.

    I’d hate to think we can’t use news stories to spark our imagination. I do it all the time. The set up for the story may have a factual source, but what we do with it comes out of our imagination. I doubt any two writers would conceive the same story inspired by a news article.

  8. Roberta Crownover August 12, 2012 at 10:13 pm #

    “True” stories contain an importance that cannot be overrated. The confluence of events that led to Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE are part of the imperial mind-set of the day. Rome, at times, had thousands of people crucified throughout the empire.
    This idea and the concurrent local instances create as many potential stories as the people who experienced them. Plagiarism is stealing exact words, and stealing intellectual work without ascription. Telling people’s stories is our on-going lesson in being human.

  9. MorningAJ (Jobbing Writer) August 13, 2012 at 3:16 am #

    I’m with Mary Potter on this one. We also have a series of hospital dramas over this side of the pond (Holby/Casualty for any of you who watch UK TV) and they regularly use stories from the press. One involved a friend of mine a few years ago.

    It’s a good way to discuss ethical and legal questions that are actually relevant to today’s society.

  10. Chloe August 13, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    Randy, this is great! Thank you for your very thorough and insightful response to my questions. I’m also glad you posted them on your blog, as I likewise picked up some new things from the comments of your readers.

  11. Nikole Hahn August 15, 2012 at 5:52 am #

    Great question that I never thought about. Had a news story come across Yahoo news one day and I archived it to use as part of a spec fiction plot.

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