Mari posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Plagiarism was a big deal when I was in college. I now find it to be haunting me every time I write (I’m afraid that I might accidentally write something that is too close to one’s idea). Is this something we have to worry about on writing fiction novels?
Randy sez: First, let me preface all my remarks with the usual disclaimer that I am not a lawyer, and nothing I say here should be construed as legal advice.
My understanding is that plagiarism is not “stealing somebody else’s idea.” Plagiarism is “stealing somebody else’s presentation of an idea.” Normally, that means stealing somebody else’s words without giving credit (for short quotations that fit the “fair use” criteria) and without getting permission (for long quotations that don’t fit the “fair use” criteria). However, most people also consider it plagiarism if you copy somebody else’s work and then simply rearrange a few words to make it look original.
We are not talking here about inadvertently using a sentence that somebody else used in their novel. This undoubtedly happens from time to time. You read a great sentence. It sticks in your brain. Months or years later, you’ve forgotten the original book, but you’re writing on a related topic, and you type out that memorable sentence, thinking that you wrote it yourself. This is easy to do, and it’s not plagiarism. Yesterday at my critique group, I had what I thought was a brilliant and original idea for a title for my friend’s novel. She pointed out that I had suggested the exact same title a month ago! I had totally forgotten about it.
Plagiarism happens when you type out paragraphs or pages of somebody else’s work and call it your own. It is still plagiarism if you tweak the words a bit. It is still plagiarism if you move a few sentences around.
It is not plagiarism, so far as I know, if you take that idea, digest it in your own brain, and write it down in your own words. If you do this, it’s always a good idea to give credit to the originator, if you know who the originator is. But you don’t always know.
An example of that: I was sitting in the front row of a class at a writing conference a few years ago and a speaker who knows me well got up to speak. One of the first things he said was, “The purpose of fiction is to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience.” And I started laughing, because I coined that phrase years ago, and I assumed the speaker was about to point out that I’d invented the term. But he didn’t. He just gave me a very odd look. Later on, he asked me why I’d laughed at him, and I explained. It turned out that he had no idea that I’d coined the term. “Powerful Emotional Experience” has entered so much into the vernacular of the writing community that my own friend didn’t know it originated with me. (I sometimes wonder if I got it from someone else and have forgotten the source of it. But so far as I know, it’s original with me.)
The moral here is that using short phrases or even a whole sentence is not plagiarism, it’s just a sign that the phrase or sentence made a powerful impact on you. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.
Please note that it is possible to steal ideas for stories. However, so far as I can tell, this isn’t considered plagiarism. If you steal an idea and use it extremely closely, then it’s considered stealing an idea. But if a plot twist or a character attribute in one story suggests to you a similar plot twist or character attribute for your story, then that isn’t stealing. If it was, every author who ever published would be a thief. I’m told that Shakespeare borrowed most of his story ideas from other writers, and most writers will tell you that they’ve borrowed ideas from time to time. If you borrow an idea and then remake it in your own image, that seems to be just fine.
Also remember that sometimes “ideas are in the air.” (I don’t know who first said this phrase, but I’ve heard it a billion times.) It’s not uncommon to see two novelists who never heard of each other simultaneously publish books with similar characters or similar ideas.
The same goes for titles. I submitted my first novel to my publisher with the title AVATAR about ten years ago, never dreaming that James Cameron would make that title famous with a movie in 2009. (My publisher didn’t like the title, and we eventually retitled it TRANSGRESSION.) My second novel, OXYGEN, appeared at about the same time as another novel with that same title. My sixth novel, RETRIBUTION, was published in the same year as a best-selling legal thriller with the same title. I only discovered the coincidence when I saw the other book in an airport bookstore.
I would say that if you take reasonable care not to model your story after somebody else’s, then you’re probably OK. If you inadvertently use a phrase or a sentence or a plot twist that you picked up somewhere else, it would at most be a bit embarrassing. Just don’t intentionally use more than that.
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