What Plagiarism is, and What it is Not

Who did it first?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: In 1961, a horror movie was released in the US in which a beautiful young blonde travels to a small town and stays in a strange inn. Although the blonde appears to be the main character, she is shockingly stabbed to death halfway through the film. Her sibling and her significant other travel to the town to find out what happened to her. At the climax of the film, the mummified corpse of a character who was believed to be alive is revealed to the audience. 

I just described Psycho, right?

Wrong. I just described City of the Dead, aka Horror Hotel. It was a British production released in the UK in 1960 and the US in 1961. 

And if you’ve seen the movie, you know I took a few things way out of context to make the similarities seem closer. That’s what a lot of people crying “plagiarism” do. 

But these two films were in production at the same time. There’s no way either one could have stolen from the other; they just share some common ideas. That happens, particularly within specific genres. 

Recently, an author over on Xitter started screaming bloody murder because another author “stole” her super-unique idea of…harnessing the power of the sun. She claimed she was sending reams of proof to her lawyer to protect her “copyright” for this incredibly unusual idea that nobody else could ever possibly have come up with independently.

Yeah, I think Doc Ock might like a word.

Never mind that she hadn’t even published this book yet. She’d posted a few pitches on social media here and there. On those grounds, she thought the other author was stealing from her. 

Oh brother. 

She was also being really racist about the whole thing; she was white and made a big deal out of the other author being Nigerian. I hope that in 2024, white authors will resolve to leave Black authors the hell alone. 

A few people on Xitter thought this person simply had to be a troll because nobody could be that stupid, but over the years I’ve seen plenty of authors be That Stupid indeed. That’s not to say that some very public plagiarism cases don’t have some merit. But it’s remarkable how often they’re a lot like the one I just mentioned.

So. Here’s a quick lesson on plagiarism:

If you can put a copy of your book next to my book and circle near-identical passages of narrative and dialogue with only extremely minor changes, and there’s enough of these instances that there is no possible way it could have all evolved by coincidence, I plagiarized you. 

If your book and mine both feature similar plot elements but address them in very different ways? That’s not plagiarism. Not even if you go through my book and find other minor similarities to yours. If we both used some of the same bog-standard genre tropes that aren’t original to either one of us, that’s still not plagiarism.

I’m not even plagiarizing you if we used the same character names. Otherwise, DC Comics’ Sandman and Marvel’s Sandman could not both exist.

I don’t know how to say this without sounding hurtful, but here’s one more thing: If you are an indie author whose book barely sold, it is vanishingly unlikely that massively popular and prolific bestselling author stole from your book.

Ideas are not copyrightable; the expression of them is. Tomorrow I could write a story about a teenage girl falling in love with her sexy vampire classmate and Stephenie Meyer couldn’t touch me. Not even if I threw werewolves and half-vampire babies into the mix—as long as I made sure all these characters were distinct enough from those in Twilight. This is why the people claiming that The Hunger Games plagiarized Battle Royale make me roll my eyes. I’ve read both novels. They have a similar central concept—teenagers forced to fight to the death—but the books are otherwise wildly different. 

A few years ago, I saw three different movies in quick succession in which a deer being hit by a car was a harbinger for Really Bad Shit about to go down. The movies were Get Out, Train to Busan, and A Cure for Wellness, all of which came out in close proximity. Sometimes a similar idea seems to bubble around in everyone’s collective brain soup and show up in their works at the same time. It’s really weird when that happens, but it is not plagiarism. 

Why do I care so much about this? Maybe it was because I went to a school that put the fear of God into me about plagiarism. There was a big passage about it in the student handbook we got at the beginning of every year. You could get into big trouble for copying someone else’s work even if it was unintentional, and if you got caught doing this, the best outcome you could expect was an F for the project. Suspension and expulsion were on the table. 

So this is not a charge I think should ever be thrown around lightly.

Even though I am extremely over J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter these days, I still haven’t forgotten how that insane woman in Pennsylvania had most of the US media uncritically reporting her claim that Rowling stole from her book about Larry Potter and the Muggles. Literally none of this was true, and all I had to do was look at that woman’s website for a few minutes to realize her claims were nonsense. But by the time the truth came out via a court finding, the lie had already taken deep root. Don’t get mad at me because I tend to be deeply skeptical of these claims; get mad at the people who make frivolous claims, and the publications that don’t do their homework before they blast these stories all over the world and tarnish people’s reputations. 

P.S.: Quite a while ago, I got a “Nice story you have here; shame if something were to happen to it” email from someone informing me that I’d used their “copyrighted” short story title as a title for one of my own works. I’d never seen that story. My title was based off the Weekly Knob prompt for that week.

Oh, and you can’t copyright a title. You may be able to trademark it under very limited circumstances, but a one-off flash fiction piece is not one of those circumstances. 

I never bothered to respond. But in a weird way, I felt like I’d finally made it as an author. Just like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, I’d had an author I didn’t know get huffy with me because we both independently used a similar story element.

That’s when you know you’re on your way.

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