Thursday, June 28, 2012

There is Nothing New Under the Sun

The wind was picking up. Watching the approaching gale from her seat in the cockpit, Anne was grateful that Carousel had reached shelter before the storm hit. But as the sailboat's bare mast bobbed and weaved with the others in the harbor, Anne prayed for the sailors who were still out on Lake Michigan.

Notice the opening sentence, which I borrowed from Chi Libris. Chi Libris is a group of well-known Christian novelists that include Angela Hunt and James Scott Bell. The group decided to publish a book of short stories with five shared elements: the same opening sentence, mistaken identity, pursuit at a noted landmark, an unusual form of transportation, and the same last line ("So that's exactly what she did.") The plots vary widely, however. In fact, the point of their collection, What the Wind Picked Up, is to show that the same basic idea can generate many diverse stories.

That's one reason you can't copyright ideas. The idea itself doesn't make the story. It's what you do with the idea that counts.

But there's an even more important reason why you can't copyright ideas. The founding fathers included copyright provisions in the Constitution to encourage creative works, not to inhibit them. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, "there is nothing new under the sun." If ideas could be copyrighted, there would be nothing left to write about.

Here's one idea that is frequently found in literature. Two young people fall in love but are kept apart by their feuding families, and the consequences are tragic.

You could call Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet a case of mistaken identity in 16th Century Verona, Italy. The two protagonists fell in love before discovering who they had fallen in love with.

Move the setting to New York City in the 1950s, and you have West Side Story.

Then there is the apparently true story of the Hatfields and the McCoys in the Appalachian Mountains during the late 1800s. Their feud escalated after Johnse Hatfield began courting Roseanne McCoy, and Johnse's family had to rescue him from the angry McCoy men. Did Johnse escape on a horse or use some other form of transportation that we would consider unusual today?

Or travel back to even earlier times. Legend tells of two Native American lovers from rival tribes. When their chiefs forbade their marriage, the lovers swore that if they couldn't live together they would die together. Fleeing from their families, they embraced each other and jumped off the landmark now known as Lover's Leap in Illinois' Starved Rock State Park.

All of these stories use the same basic plot idea, and one (West Side Story) is still under copyright.

Now think of all the contemporary authors who have used that same plot idea. If you could copyright an idea, those stories wouldn't exist.

Let's look at another example.

Miss Read (pen name for Dora Saint) has written multiple books about everyday village life in England. While these books tend to have a main character, they center around an ensemble cast of ordinary, and mostly likeable, village residents.

Does that remind you of a series by a popular American authoress?

When I read Jan Karon's first Mitford book, I immediately thought of Miss Read and her Fairacre/Thrush Green books. It isn't that the writing style is similar--it isn't--or that the authors tell the same stories--they don't. But their books have a common theme.

I don't know if Jan Karon read Miss Read's books before writing her own. For the sake of my point, however, let's assume she did. And let's also assume Jan Karon knew she could use the same idea without violating copyright law.

So that's exactly what she did.

Kathryn Page Camp


  1. This is my first HI blog read in literally weeks (but I plan to catch up now that my move is over and I'm "only" settling) -- and what a GREAT read to resume with. Thanks, Kathryn, for such an excellent blog, so interestingly and skillfully written! Years ago I worried that some other writer would "plagarize" my novels. My son and consultant (and Yale Law School grad) told me that would be great because then I could "go to court." Whether or not I won wouldn't matter because all the stir would make people want to read my books. . . It hasn't happened, not yet that I know of anyway. . . :-)

  2. It's funny how the things I worried about when I started writing ("someone stealing great ideas") aren't even something I think about anymore. Very nice post.

  3. Very good article, Kathryn.

    One amusing fact. I saw an old episode of "Bachelor Father" starring John Forsythe. In that episode, he's representing a client accused of plagiarism by another author, and he asks his teenage daughter to determine if his client did. The girl remembers a story she read when she was young that both authors "stole the story" of. With your articles, though, the client would not have been guilty.

    Thanks again.


  4. Kathryn,

    Thank you for this piece.

    Fear kept me from writing when I was young. I was a voracious reader who wanted desperately to write, but when I would come up with an idea, I feared it had a precedent, that it was not truly "original." Of course, in that assumption I was right, for indeed there is nothing new under the sun. Any volume of MASTERPLOTS will bear that out. Cross reference the contents of those hefty books with Aarne-Thompson's work on the classification of folktales and oral tradition and one quickly reaches the conclusion that any plot or motif one can devise has been devised by previous generations.

    So what's a writer to do? Put some new flowers or a touch of pretty ribbon on that old hat--or a veil that can be lifted at the proper time.

    As a professional storyteller who specializes in Appalachian oral tradition, I tell tales that have been shared through millennia, but I tell them MY way; I add my twists and personality. Listeners may know how the story ends, but they won't know exactly how I'm going to get them to that end.

    Write on!
    Because of Christ,
    Sharon Kirk Clifton

  5. Thaanks for your comments. And Millie, I'm sure your son's remark was tongue-in-cheek, but the only ones who win from a lawsuit are the lawyers. Some publicity isn't worth the cost.