plagiarismn: a piece of writing that has been copied from someone else and is presented as being your own work
It’s about time to discuss this topic. As you can see from the dictionary definition above, “plagiarism” has a very specific meaning. This is very important, because it has a legal implication. Plagiarism is actionable under civil law. It can get you into trouble if you plagiarize someone else’s essay in school.
People tend to use this term incorrectly all the time. In some very few legal cases, authors have proved in court that someone else plagiarized their work, by proving substantial portions of it were lifted, unchanged, from their own work. When most people refer to “plagiarizing” however, they are generally saying that someone used someone else’s ideas.
Now, you will almost never hear a professional author accusing another of this. The reason is simple; first, you cannot put a patent or a copyright or a statement of ownership on an idea. Second, every professional writer knows that no two authors will take the same idea and do the same thing with it. And again, with the exception of a handful of legal cases and an incredibly original idea (and I can personally think of only one, Art Buchwald’s case against the producers of COMING TO AMERICA) it simply is wildly unlikely that any professional would bother with pilfering someone else’s work. Why should we? Ideas occur all the time to us. The trick is not in coming up with ideas, but with figuring out which are the most marketable.
Now, how does it happen that authors have similar topics? There are many ways. First, and the simplest—-coming from the same source. Fantasy authors are all getting their inspiration from the same mythopoeic well— the huge backlog of myth, fable, and legends from history. Science fiction authors are usually looking at scientific papers and discoveries of today as well as projecting from current events to speculate on what will happen tomorrow. Historical novelists are, of course, bound by what actually happened in history. And so on. Second, influence and tribute. Authors are influenced by what they enjoy reading, and often pay tribute to that by showing that influence in their own work.
Nevertheless, a professional author will be careful to avoid the charge of being a copycat by bringing something original to the party.
Let’s take, for instance, Elves. Now, Elves in literature go back— well, probably as long as there has been writing. However, nowadays, when you say “Elf” most people think of Tolkien’s Elves. Was Tolkien the first to write about Elves? Hardly. Before him, George MacDonald, before him, Lord Dunsany, and before him, a very long history of legend and lore. So Tolkien brought his own original take to the table; the Sylvan and High Elves of Middle Earth. When Poul Anderson wrote about Elves, he went back to the Nordic version, the tough, cold creatures of Norse myth. When I wrote about them, I used the Seleighe and Unseleighe Sidhe of Celtic tradition, but tied them into the modern world— then I used a different sort of Elf, cruel, selfish, and powerful for the ELVENBANE books— then yet another, Elves without magic, for the “Obsidian Mountain” trilogy. They’re all Elves. They all have pointed ears and are immortal. Yet they are all distinct. And it should be obvious that there’s no copying going on.
Now, suppose someone else, drawing on the tradition of non-human servitor races that goes back to Prester John and the stories of what could be found in the mysterious East, creates a world that includes a race of lizard-servants. Unless that person makes them semi-sentient and shy, as in Andre Norton’s WITCH WORLD books, space-suited, beefy and bellicose, as in E.E. Smith’s LENSMAN series, or clever, incredibly helpful, and more fashion-obsessed than Carson Daly, as in my VALDEMAR series, nobody with any brains or common sense is going to whinge about copycatting. And in fact, another writer could base his new creation on any of those, bring some new idea or twist to the tale, and it would still be clear that there wasn’t any copycatting going on, only the synchronicity of similar sources.
Furthermore, a professional author wouldn’t care. I know this seems incredible to some of you, but the plain fact is that the ideas are not what is important. It’s what you do with them. How many writers have come up with the idea of a school for young magic-users? Probably dozens, possibly hundreds; nevertheless, it was Jo Rowling who put the whole package together in such a way that she has captured the hearts of the world, and do you know what the rest of us professionals are saying? (Well, aside from, “Gee, I wish I could come up with something like that...”) We’re saying, “Good for you, Jo! Love the books! Write faster!” My Tayledras are based on the mythic tradition of the secretive, magical, and powerful Forest People— it’s a tradition that goes back to the legend of the God Tyr, who bartered his eye to the Forest Spirits for the magic knife to defend his downs-dwelling, sheep-herding people from the Great Wolves (you can read a very neat version of the story in Rudyard Kipling’s book, PUCK OF POOK’S HILL as I recall, though it might be in the sequel, REWARDS AND FAIRIES). But if someone came along with a New York Times bestselling series with similar characters, I would just admire and try to figure out what it was that made that series so successful. How many Arthurian books have there been? And yet, there are only two that achieved wild and unbelievable success—T.H. White’s THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s MISTS OF AVALON. And the rest of us sit back and study, study, study, hoping to catch the lightning in a bottle ourselves some day. The one thing we do not do is whinge and moan about how “x stole my idea.” Because, as I said before, a real, professional author knows that it is not the idea that is important, it is what you do with it.
You can’t plagiarize ideas, only text. And a real, professional writer would throw themselves over a cliff before they did that— because the one thing we take pride in is our words. Our own voice. So to take someone else’s would mean we couldn’t come up with any of our own. Not a chance.