Reading the NYTimes article about woman suing Stephenie Meyer for plagiarising scenes for Breaking Dawn (which the article states is the second of such suits, Twilight being big enough, now, that trying for a settlement or attention being potentially worth it, I suppose); I couldn't help but think how weird such suits are now. Not only is the number of writers pumping stuff into the Internet about five times the population of a 19th century empire, and the amount that they are writing makes the late Library at Alexandria look like a meager sized (though infinitely superior) collection, but everyone is trying so hard to write distinguishing things that are new and clever. I know, I'll dress up the Frankenstein myth by making it an alien symbiote required to rebirth the body! Shazam! These stories go to blogs, to Scribd, to Youtube videos on some young writer's feed, to websites, to dozens and dozens of small press lit mags, to local libraries, to vanity presses, and to the great beyond from where no one returns. It is not overstating the case to say that at least 100,000 new ideas float out of the collective intraconscious ever year. And if you treat these ideas as potential seeds for scenes that might be in a body of work that has nothing else to do with anything you have written, as this lawsuit claims, where a scene on a beach and a scene of transformation seem to be the extent of plagiarism, roughly; then you reach a moment in time where just about everything is potentially plagiarised from something.
Let's leave out notions of homage, allusion, reference, pastiche, and fandom; for the moment.
When I wrote the first draft of Ghostlight, Ron Edwards noted that it had a similar, but not the same, set of mechanics as S. John Ross's Risus, a game I found out about after the fact. This, in turn, had some similar ideas as Over the Edge by Jonathan Tweet and Robin Laws. The concept was describing the character by traits not set in stone, and then resolving the roll by a d6 (or, six-sided die, if you will). Just to avoid an issue, Edwards suggested that I acknowledge these two older games, games that I learned about after the fact, and so I did. The original, and 2.0 edition, of Ghostlight included the phrase "Thanks to Over the Edge and Risus". There was something of a debt of gratitude, games like theirs had helped to open up what people wanted and expected for an RPG, which in turn helped a handful of people to get really excited about the game I wrote in an afternoon after getting bored with Wizards and Palladium FRPG and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons.
But let's be honest, the rule of creating your character out of scratch from a player chosen, non-set specific, attributes and then rolling a six-sided dice is nothing particularly unique. It might be clever, and a handsome alternative to the rigid characters with their polyhedral fixation in other RPGs, and a quick-to-build character can be easier to create roleplay than say, a Call of Cthulhu investigator with dozens of attributes and skills each with their significance, but this is, in some ways, more obvious a solution that what then, and still, dominates RPGs. This is the way a kid might build a game. Steal some dice from their parent's board games, come up with a couple of basic terms, and then roll them to see what happens. The RPG community is kind of close knit, and used to be more so than today, and some of my favorite game writers (of then and today) were people I chatted with and shared ideas with. As far as I know, my name is still in the thank you section of the RPG Sorcerer. There was the potential of plagiarism, no doubt, but mostly we wanted to find our own voice, our own clever mechanic. It just so happened that some of those mechanics overlapped.
Now, explode that to include every potential bit of writing since, say, 1994 or so; and you have a morass of concepts and a quagmire of unpublished, often paranoid writers who have tossed out splinters and spines of ideas for a decade or more now. A scene on a beach and a similar scene of vampire transformation? Both books have someone who refers to their love interest as "love"? Good GOD, man, it's practically a mirror image. I don't even know how plagiarism works nowadays. Let's say that Meyer did steal those three or four scenes, if she had slapped a brief "thanks!" in the back, would that have covered it? Can you plagiarise concepts, or does the term apply specifically to actually cribbing materials directly? Could you declare it an homage? What proof do you have to have, outside of some system of restoring an old computer cache, that Meyer read the work when it was on the web, and, assuming she did not read it, how could you possibly prove that she did not any of the millions of words of cheap, vampire fanfic? She says she doesn't like vampire literature, and doesn't watch R-rated movies and so hasn't seen a lot of vampire lore at all, but that does not mean that she didn't search for "vampire fiction free" or something in Google and then made notes of stuff she liked. It wouldn't be the first time someone assumed that something posted in a blog or online means that it is practically thrown away by the owner. It also wouldn't be the first time that someone thought they could dip fingers in a honey jar that was currently overflowing, or got some free and cheap publicity by making a false claim. Just think about this, this woman is practically saying "I have a book that has scenes just like Twilight, and I wrote them first, oh by the way, did I mention that my book is just like Twilight?!?" News articles are even citing her URL, because it was the site that first exposed her story to the world, and talking about the name of her book. If only 5% of the people that hear about this buy it, she will be quite well off on book-sales no matter how the lawsuit turns out.
And what about the third alternative, that two writers came up with similar ideas for vampires? I doubt there are many fresh ideas left in the genre, haven't been for years. I have the idea for one, and am about to write my first piece set in that universe, but someone may have already beaten me to it. I accept this. Just trust me when I say, I seriously didn't read that dude's blog. Nope. It was all me.
Before I go, here's a fun one. Did Star Wars ripoff Dune? Here are some points to ponder: young guy, evil empire, desert planet, mental and physical powers, spice mines, giant worms, special powered priesthood, and people being uneasy around machines? At the same time, you can watch both and barely pay attention to any given thing that they share, maybe outside of the desert planet. Why is one "plagiarism" and the other "taking established bits of the genre"? I don't know, I guess that's a rhetorical question.
Si Vales, Valeo
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Written by Doug Bolden
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The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".
"The hidden is greater than the seen."