Ideas are an odd form of property. We protect them under law with copyright, trademarks and patents, but when it comes to the inventions of fiction, it’s very hard to assert meaningful ownership in a court of law. Instead, writers and readers enforce an ad-hoc moral code against authors who are seen to have stepped too far over the invisible lines of literary ownership.
My column for The Guardian this week stumbled over two cases of writers borrowing from their colleagues. It’s well known that Iain M Banks took some inspiration from Larry Niven’s Ringworld for the Orbitals featured in his novels of the Culture. Banks is now, arguably, far better known than Niven, and he altered the idea while inverting Niven’s politics, all of which seems to have earned him a pass for his minor misdemeanor.
The accusation raised against Douglas Adams in the comments of my column was new to me and, at least as presented, seem rather closer to outright plagiarism. Further research revealed that those accusations, sourced to SF author Christopher Priest in his obituary of Robert Sheckly, were somewhat overstated. Nonetheless it raises the question of just how much authors can borrow from each other before those invisible lines are crossed.
My rather wooly answer, that I suspect will not satisfy officers of the court, is that it doesn’t matter…as long as you only steal ideas you love, from authors you adore. I’ll get into the deeper waters of why in a bit, because first I want to flag up why this matters. It’s not just some writers who thieve from others, it’s all writers. And, if you don’t engage in some friendly pilfering, the fact is, you’ll probably stop yourself writing all together.
Writers aren’t lawyers, thank god. We’re artists, creators and dreamers. (We might ALSO be lawyers, because most of use have at LEAST two people in our heads.) And we start our dream lives inside the dreams of others. All the stories we read as kids are the mulch our own stories latter grow from. In our own stories we express the symbolic inner language of our imagination, and inevitably, many of those symbols are shared with the imaginations of the writers we ourselves love. If you DON’T use those symbols, perhaps because you fear being criticised for unoriginality, you risk violating the first law of creative life…YOU MUST HONOUR YOUR DREAMS. If your imagination gives you a gift, not taking it is tantamount to insulting the gods. And we all know where that leads.
Entertainment conglomerates want to own stories so they can, exclusively, profit from them. But writers, when they are honest, know that nobody owns the stories anymore than they own the DNA of life (corporations are also rather keen on owning those, whenever they can.) Stories are archetypal. They come from the great mythic beyond that only fools and madmen claim to understand, and only the very deluded claim to own.
But. None of this means you should go around creating half baked rip-offs of your fellow author’s work. Remember, it’s OK to steal fron authors you LOVE. And if you love them, you’ll want to create something that they love reading as much as you love reading them. I know nothing about Robert Sheckly, but I suspect it would take a hard heart indeed not to love Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Steal like a master criminal, then create like a master artist.