Who owns ideas anyway?
Earlier this week authors around the world where bemused for learning that Sherrilyn Kenyon, the author of Dark-Hunter series, has sued Cassandra Clare, of The Mortal Instruments fame, for copyright infringement, basically for using an idea she regards as uniquely her own. Their fans obviously took sides, but authors seemed to hold the opinion that she doesn’t have a case. No one owns ideas.
We’ve all been there. We’ve written a book, thinking we’ve created a unique piece of literature unparalleled to anything else, only to realise that someone has beaten us to it. And they’ve probably done it better too. We’re gobsmacked, unable to fathom how our brilliant idea could have occurred to another person and on another side of the world even.
The answer may be simple. There are only a limited number of stories that we’ve duplicated and varied over millennia. Maybe there are only four stories, like Paul Coelho maintains, or a couple of thousand, but “the same elements used in much the same ways seem to yield staggeringly different and original results in the hands of each artist who picks them up”, as Damien Walter notes on his blog. The details change, but the core remains. As Courtney Milan noted about the lawsuit, “Sherrilyn Kenyon didn’t invent the idea of a band of humans fighting the supernatural”, nor did she invent blond heroes or magical items. She simply utilised them in her own unique way – as did Cassandra Clare.
Both maintain that their creations are unique, and they’re both right. Authors are sponges who get their ideas anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes we know the moment the idea for a book struck, but most of the time they evolve slowly. And as authors are also readers, often the ideas are sparked by something we read in someone else’s book. Does that mean the idea isn’t ours? No, as long as we make it ours. But it also means that if someone else uses the idea we’re absolutely certain no one else has thought of before us, we have to let them.
More than once I’ve changed a story-line, character, or idea because I’ve realised I’m repeating what another author has already done. But as often, I’ve kept it. I’ve thought that I’ve created something unique and although the idea is the same, the outcome isn’t a copy of someone else’s work. And, to be clear, I’m not talking about the plagiarism of actual texts; that’s a whole different problem.
What would happen if Ms Kenyon won her case? We would be required to write completely unique books. There wouldn’t be a multitude of vampire books, or serial killer books; there would be only one romance with a billionaire, or a cowboy, and only one space opera with huge space ships, and so on.
It’s an exaggeration of course, and already impossible due to a sheer volume of similar books. Entire genres exist because they make use of the same core idea that no one can claim the authorship to. But it makes you realise just how much we rely on similar ideas. Take that away, and what do we have left? Not a whole lot.