While surfing around on the net recently, I noticed a spate of articles dealing with plagiarism. Most of these articles focused on the various copyright issues of writers whose works have been reproduced verbatim without the author’s prior consent. So I’m not going to do yet another article on that topic.
Other sites have featured FAQ pages, where a lot of writers have asked the question “What if someone steals my idea?”
Obtaining a copyright for an original piece of work is a relatively straight-forward procedure these days, so thoughts of a desperate hack plagiarizing your work shouldn’t be a problem.
But how do you copyright an IDEA ?
To put it simply - you can’t.
No matter what amazingly unique idea you might come up with for your new novel, chances are it’s already been used hundreds, possibly even thousands, of times before.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I’m going to give you - free of charge - an idea for your next novel. Are you ready for it??
Woman meets Man. Man is cold-hearted and aloof. Woman despises Man.
Man eventually wins her over. They fall in love, despite their differences. They live happily ever after.
If it sounds awfully familiar, that’s because it is. It is a commonly recurring theme for most romantic fiction novels. The odd part here is that I don’t usually read romantic fiction. I ‘borrowed’ this idea from an Anne McCaffrey science fiction/fantasy novel to give to you.
Does this mean the idea was originally plagiarized from trusty old Mills and Boon? Absolutely not.
Using the example above, let’s look at three different writers from three completely different genres. We can see how they are able to ‘borrow’ an idea and turn it into an original work of fiction.
Writer 1: Horror Writer
Woman meets Man. Man is cold-hearted and aloof because he is a vampire. Woman is disgusted by his nature and terrified of him. He proves himself to be an unwilling victim, not a cold-blooded killer and he wins her over. She is drawn to his mysterious nature and they fall in love anyway, in spite of their differences.
Writer 2: Fantasy Writer
Princess meets Man. Man is cold-hearted and aloof because he has elven blood in his veins and he knows he can never be accepted into the royal world of the Princess. Woman rides into the forest and is attacked by a hungry dragon. Half-elven man slays dragon, wins the Princess’ respect. They fall in love, in spite of their different heritage. They live happily ever after.
Writer 3: Science Fiction Writer
Woman is seen by Man in holographic vidfile. Problem is she’s been dead for two hundred years. He immerses himself in the study of quantum physics and becomes cold-hearted and aloof after unsuccessfully trying for years to build a time machine to reach her. When he finally succeeds and they meet, he’s an old man and she despises his boring ‘scientist’ nature…
I’m sure you get the idea. Most great works of fiction have a recurring underlying theme or idea at their base. But it is the unique variations of the individual writer’s imagination that can give a well-worn idea a fresh outlook.
Find a novel or story that touches you in some way. Analyze the underlying idea and learn why that particular story moved you so much. The words the author used will be copyrighted, of course. But the underlying idea isn’t.
Go ahead and create your own fictional world around the idea and immerse your unique characters in it. Throw obstacles at your hapless heroine. Invent new reasons to stop them from reaching their goals. But be sure to make it yours.
The idea is not the important part of your novel. Your own unique writing tone is what matters. The reactions and feelings of your characters and the situations you put them into will always be individually yours.
And nobody can plagiarize those.