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Monday, October 12, 2009

Plots Are Not Copyrightable

(I am not directing this topic to any specific event, though I know some of you who read my blog will remember me making this statement in relation to a particular incident; here, I am not making the argument in that relation, but in a more general sense.)

As much as writers might want to keep their plots and storylines safe from thieves, the reality is that short of never putting your work in print and keeping it locked in a volt and buried in your backyard forever, you cannot protect your plots anymore than someone can protect their children from experiencing bad things. No matter what you do, you’ll probably find that someone has “stolen” your plot already.

Why? Well, because plots are not copyrightable. J. K. Rowling can no more protect the plot of Harry Potter than you can protect the plot of your yet unpublished novel. Rowling, however, can protect what amounts to her intellectual property, and there are instances where she has gone after people for what seem like clear acts of plagiarism (I don’t know enough about them to have judgment, except in the case of that encyclopedia thing that Rowling killed with the power of a lawyer). But Rowling has not won cases against plagiarism by arguing for plot; yes, she has made those arguments, but what has worked for you are a collection of factors (characters looking and acting remarkably like her own characters collected with plot, setting, etc.). If she were to argue that someone had stolen her plot, well, then you’d be opening up a can of worms in the writing community, with everyone suing everyone for supposed thefts.

Personally, I think this assumption that one can protect his or her plot stems from an inability to acknowledge that originality is mostly dead. Outside of the “seven plots,” there are far too may near-exact plot replicas flooding the mainstream markets; there are enough Dan Brown rip-offs as there are Tolkien rip-offs (okay, so maybe that’s a bit much, but you get my point) all because of the fact that plots cannot be protected. Maybe they should, but then where would we get our literature from? It doesn’t take a genius to look at a few of the most popular fantasy novels and see where they overlap. Many arguments have been made that Eragon and Eldest by Christopher Paolini are directly taken from Star Wars, which, of course, stole directly from mythology with the help of a fellow who knew quite a bit about the stuff in the first place (Joseph Campbell). But George Lucas isn’t suing Paolini presumably because he’s smart enough to know a bad lawsuit when he sees one (and that might be one of the few things he gets credit for in the smart department, since his directing style, while not absolutely wretched, truly pulls away from the greatness that Star Wars once was—it’s still good, just not as good as it used to be). Plots, to be fair, are simply not original elements by a long shot. They certain can deviate and change little bits here and there, but, ultimately, plots are a constant mimic of themselves, like self-replicating mental machines drilling themselves into parts of our psyches where we have to really dig to be able to yank them out and see what they’re up to.

The best kinds of stories are those that can take an overused plot and turn it into a powerhouse fantasy epic (or insert your favorite genre here). Nobody suggests that Tolkien or J. K. Rowling (except Orson Scott Card, who is obviously a very special brand of crazy) be brought up on charges of plagiarism, despite the fact that, if we assume plagiarism to include plot, these two are probably some of the most prominent plot plagiarizers of all time, from the very inclusion of prophecies and chosen ones to evil magic rings and fantastic unintentional allegories about real events. So, either we hold our favorites up to the guillotine just as we hold up the ones we dislike, or we let it all go and acknowledge that we don’t own plots, we just use them. The characters make the world go round, not the writer-as-god-directed storylines that pull them to and fro for no other purpose other than to get to the end (they’re more complicated than that, but that’s for another place and another time).

And now I want your opinion. Leave a comment!

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6 comments:

  1. Yup and when you start studying greek literature and theatre you realise that "nothing original" is kind of an understatement. It's all about the delivery.

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  2. So they tell me :P

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  3. Well, to be fair, "plots are not copyrightable" is an overbroad statement; some aspects of plot are very much copyrightable, and there can be infringement of a narrative. Some law suits have succeeded on this theory, some have failed, it's a mixed bag.

    The reason barebones plots are not copyrightable can be argued on a number of grounds, but the easiest explanation is that they're in the public domain. They've been around a lot longer than Copyright Law has, so no individual author gets credit.

    So yeah, the plots of "girl goes on journey and endures trying times that result in a coming of age" and "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, happily ever after" do not possess the requisite originality to be capable of copyright protection. But plots can also be described in much more detail. It's the level of abstraction you're looking from that becomes important -- a lot depends on what you're defining as "plot," and how broadly you're requiring that word to apply.

    To take previous cases slightly out of context, it's what "the French refer to ... as scenes a faire -- that is, scenes which must follow a certain situation." Even if two stories are similar, there is no infringement if the similarities are pretty much inevitable given that they have the same barebones general narrative. But this only goes so far -- at some point, at some narrower level of abstraction, a plot is an original idea, even if it is also part of an older archetype.

    Though keep in mind, this is just U.S. law. In some jurisdictions, Australia being the only one I'm even roughly familiar with in this regard, a much broader copyright protection is afforded to plots. (And thought it won't be under copyright, in some states, like California and New York, you can get an idea misappropriation claim for stealing a plot idea.)

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  4. SueSimp: I'm talking primarily about bare bones, the basic structure of what happens. We we start talking about specific details like characters, relationships, names, locations, etc., then we're dealing with something outside of plot.

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  5. Excellent article, you have a lot of great points.

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