Q&A: Originality, Plagurism, and Standing on Referential Shoulders

Why do people claim writers copy others simply for having tropes or similar plots, then claim 50 Shades of Grey is original because the names where changed from literal fanfiction? That writer can’t even be sued, although she should be, and yet we have squabbles over copying because of biblical quotes and references to myths and common tropes. I don’t want to worry about originality ever again.

Because there are many idiots and trolls in the world. That might sound dismissive, but it is the real answer to your question. Some individuals latch onto the idea that they can discredit a work by claiming it’s a copy (or “ripoff”) of another.

Here’s the thing about that point: It’s fundamentally impossible to be 100% original. Saying, “someone copied from another source,” without any further qualifications is meaningless, because every author will be influenced by the world around them. What you read, what you learn, what you know, influences you. It is impossible to divorce yourself from everything that has shaped you as an artist.

The way tropes are used (by fans) is incredibly reductive. The problem is, “tropes,” encompasses everything from functional plot elements to highly specific character quirks. Saying two different stories share the same trope is (mostly) meaningless, when you remember that entire genres are codified as tropes.

There is a lot of value in tropes for new writers. Tropes are an excellent tool for disassembling a narrative into component parts. This can help you take something you enjoyed, and learn how to use it, without simply copying what you saw somewhere else.

Within that context, TVTropes is an excellent resource to get started on a lit review. If you want to look at a trope, it will provide you with a mountain of potential examples. The downside is that it’s still very easy to lose days on that site, if you’re just wandering aimlessly and don’t have anything in mind. (So, my recommendation is, never, ever, go to that site for recreation. Only if you’re looking for something specific. But, that choice is in your hands.)

The problem comes in when you have people who only see in tropes. They no longer see the synthesis of the story as a whole, they’re looking at the individual parts and trying to break it down into even more fragmentary bits. They’ll start trying to kludge in every possible trope, whether they fit or not, like they’re trying to pad a score.

When they try to write their own stories, they’re more interested in how many tropes they can use (or subvert) than in telling a coherent story. It’s never, “I want to tell a story,” and always, “I want to subvert this trope.”

It should be no surprise when someone who’s more interested in tallying tropes looks at Star Wars and Power Rangers and concludes the later is just a ripoff of the former. (I really wish I could find the infamous “Lord of the Rings ripped off Dragonball Z,” 4chan shitpost, but it’s been nearly twenty years, and I could not find a copy. It is a brilliant illustration of Poe’s Law in full effect.)

The thing about 50 Shades is that it’s more than just a word replace swap of the fanfic. It no longer resembles Twilight, in any meaningful way. (Also, it’s not like E. L. James is going to sue herself, as she wrote the fanfic that would become 50 Shades.) She reworked 50 Shades it so that it was distinct from Twilight. 50 Shades is not the story of a vampire dating a teenager devoid of any personality. Twilight is not a story that violates every tenet of the BDSM community. Meyers can’t sue James for the existence of 50 Shades. There might be some grounds to go after the original fanfiction, but that would be a difficult case. (Fanfiction as a whole is a legally complicated situation.)

Simply replacing character names is not enough to protect you from copyright infringement. The famous example here is the film Nosferatu (1922), which was a shameless adaptation of Dracula, with the names changed. This did not go well for the film’s director, and only a few (or one) copies of the film survived the resulting court ordered destruction.

At the same time, actually proving infringement generally requires that you copied the story in detail. It’s not like someone can write a road trip story and then sue everyone else who uses that basic structure. Now, if you have characters who are suspiciously similar, making most of the same stops, undergoing the same character arcs, and the only changes are minor details, things get much more questionable.

When someone claims that their, “idea was stolen,” that’s not covered under copyright. Using the same premise or character archetypes is not plagiarism. Plagiarism is where you copy another writer.

If you want a more detailed discussion, we’ve talked about fair use and copyright infringement in the past.

The other element worth remembering are the magical words, “public domain.” Public domain means that the work has passed from the hands of its author into the culture. Myths, folklore, the bible, and most religious texts, are all public domain. You can do whatever you want with them.

“Originality,” is a “No True Scotsman,” fallacy. Nothing can ever be entirely original. We are all products of our world, and things we write are products of our experience with it. It only becomes a legitimate concern when you’re actually copying from another source. (There is a fine line between quoting and copying. This has to do with whether you’re referencing another work, or trying to simply replicate it.)

I get the impression you can already see the difference between someone copying another work, and someone attacking a work for being “a ripoff,” because of tenuous similarities. The important thing to remember is that these are different.

We’re influenced by the media we’ve consumed. What you want to do is be creative with your influence. Say something new. Mix things together in ways you’ve never seen. Find something interesting, and tell that story. And when someone accuses you of ripping off an anime from 2003, you can safely ignore them.


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