Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My #worldcon75 experience

Here’s the long overdue report from my day at the WorldCon 75, my first ever time attending. The event was held on August 9-13 in my home country, Finland, so it was a once in a life-time chance to experience it with a minimum trouble. I originally thought to attend the entire five days, but life intervened in the form of work, and so I could only attend on Saturday. I tried to make the most of it by planning a full day.

I arrived at the conference centre about fifteen minutes after the doors opened at nine in the morning, and the queue was already at least fifty metres long. It caused me a few palpitations until I figured it was the line for people who hadn’t purchased their day passes in advance. I had, so I just walked past, trying not to look gleeful. Half an hour later I felt bad for all those people when it was announced that the day was sold out, which left most of them outside. The queue for pre-purchased passes was three persons long, the shortest line for me the entire day. I…

Reading resolutions (and resolute reading)

It’s a new year and time for a new reading challenge. I’ve participated in the challenge on Goodreads for four years in a row now, and each year I’ve added to the number of books I’ve read. Last year I read sixty books, though I’d originally pledged to read fifty-five. To be on the safe side, I kept it to fifty-five this year too. I usually pick my reading based on how I feel, and it seems I’ve felt like reading quite a lot of urban fantasy and fantasy last year. You can check out here what I read last year.
This year, I decided to be more organised about my reading. So I made a list. I never make them, or if I do I don’t follow them, but a list of books to read has to be easy to stick to. Especially since I didn’t make any difficult promises, like reading classics in their original language.


My list has fifty-six books at the moment, so there’s some room for changes. And it seems I’ll be reading a lot of urban fantasy (27) and fantasy (22) this year too, and quite a lot of it from auth…

Temporality and passage of time in serial fiction

I’ve been binge watching Star Trek: Enterprise lately. I didn’t see it when it aired in 2001-2005, but thanks to the streaming services, I’ve been able to indulge. For those who aren’t familiar with the series, it’s set a hundred years before the adventures of the original series with Captain Kirk and his fellows, and follows the crew of the first starship Enterprise. I’ve always been a Star Trek fan and I’ve liked it in all its incarnations, but Enterprise might be my favourite. There are many reasons for my preference, but what sets it apart from other series is how it allows the passage of time to show.

Many episodic TV series, regardless of the genre, are curiously atemporal. Passage of time is only implied to, maybe with the compulsory Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day episodes, or if the series is set in the school world, with the start and end of the term; if it’s a long-running series, the students move from one grade to the next from season to season. Other than that, …