Writers commonly use each other’s ideas. In fact, we kind of have to because there are a limited number of plot lines. There are a few things you can do if you want to avoid being too derivative. Combine ideas from multiple sources together. Use nonfiction or the news as inspiration rather than other stories. Get ideas from your own personal experience including your dreams. But in the end, all literature plagiarizes from the literature that came before it to some degree.
As Wikipedia’s page on Plagiarism states, “Through all of the history of literature and of the arts in general, works of art are for a large part repetitions of the tradition; to the entire history of artistic creativity belong plagiarism, literary theft, appropriation, incorporation, retelling, rewriting, recapitulation, revision, reprise, thematic variation, ironic retake, parody, imitation, stylistic theft, pastiches, collages, and deliberate assemblages. There is no rigorous and precise distinction between practices like imitation, stylistic plagiarism, copy, replica and forgery. These appropriation procedures are the main axis of a literate culture, in which the tradition of the canonic past is being constantly rewritten.”
Copying other’s ideas is a long and proud tradition. As T. S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” (I originally heard this quote attributed to Jasper Johns or Pablo Picasso as “Good artists copy, great artists steal” but this is disputed. Perhaps they were stealing this quote from Eliot?)
Plagiarism itself isn’t a crime, but it often overlaps with copyright infringement, which is. U.S. Law tries to balance the copyright of the original author with the freedom of speech of subsequent authors who wish to pay tribute to, criticize, or parody the original work. The right to use another’s work in order to comment upon it in some way is known as Fair Use.
Fair Use is a gray area and as such, it isn’t clearly defined, often being decided on a case by case basis. Judges (in the U.S. anyway) usually rule in favor of free speech, so it’s incredibly difficult to sue someone over copyright infringement, unless it’s incredibly blatant. (For a couple examples of blatant copyright infringement, see How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life and the case of Cristiane Serruya.)
This is a good news/bad news situation. It’s good news if you’re a writer who’s worried your Die Hard in space story might get you sued, but it’s bad news if you’re a writer who’s worried someone else will steal your cool idea and change it just enough to avoid giving you any credit.
There are exceptions to this. The creators of the movie Lockout were found guilty of plagiarism and had to pay half a million dollars to the creators of Escape from New York for being too similar. I haven’t seen either movie, but I’ve heard Lockout is basically Escape from New York in space. I’m not a lawyer, but my impression is the Lockout case is an exception to the rule. Maybe the law is different in France where the case was tried? Maybe they just got the wrong judge?
Remixing stories like Lockout did is incredibly common in the world of fiction. Star Trek, for example, often bases episodes on movies. “Starship Mine” from The Next Generation was basically Die Hard in space while “The Mind’s Eye” was based on The Manchurian Candidate. “Profit and Loss” from Deep Space 9 was Casablanca in space. The Enterprise episode “Twilight” is basically Memento in space and “Marauders” is The Magnificent Seven in space (which itself was a remake of The Seven Samurai.) “Balance of Terror” from the original series is based on the submarine movie The Enemy Below. As far as I’m aware, the creators of none of these movies has ever sued Star Trek for copyright infringement.
A.E. van Vogt did sue Alien for being too similar to his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle as both are about aliens laying eggs inside the crew members of a space ship. He got an out-of-court settlement, which seems to be how these cases usually end, probably because court cases are so expensive both parties want to avoid them. Unfortunately, because these cases are usually settled out of court, we don’t know what the ruling would have been if a judge had decided the case.
How similar counts as too similar is, of course, a judgement call. A judge in one case may deem two works to be so similar it consists copyright infringement, while another judge looking at the same case will say they’re different enough to fall under Fair Use. A writer sued The Truman Show for copying his unpublished screenplay, but the judge in that case decided the similarities were not strikingly similar. I wasn’t able to find this online, but I remember reading an article in The New Yorker about this case years ago and I remember it saying there were over 100 points of similarity. A different judge could have easily ruled The Truman Show did commit copyright infringement. It all depends on which judge you get.
Harlan Ellison is famous for accusing others of plagiarizing him, when in fact, they’re only being influenced by him or even being influenced by earlier writers he was himself influenced by. He sued The Terminator for stealing his idea of a soldier going back in time. Orion pictures paid him off rather than engage in a costly legal battle, but I don’t think you can copyright a basic idea like “a soldier goes back in time”. In order for something to be copyright infringement, the similarities have to be so blatant, they can’t possibly be coincidence. Ellison also accused the Justin Timberlake movie In Time of plagiarizing his story “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktock man” and also accused The Road of plagiarizing one of his stories. I don’t think he actually took either of these cases to court, however. Perhaps he realized the similarities were coincidental after all.
In the television series True Detective, the character Rust Cohle often paraphrases Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Reading over some of the similarities, I don’t think this is blatant enough to be copyright infringement. However, the fact the writer of True Detective has avoided acknowledging his debt to Ligotti certainly makes him seem guilty.
I’m not a lawyer and this blog post is not meant to be legal advice. I’m mainly just thinking out loud here. Keep in mind also that copyright law is different in different countries and putting something on the internet is kind of like publishing it in every country in the world.
So if you’re a writer, how worried should you be about someone suing you for plagiarism? It seems that most the time, writers will just accuse someone else of stealing their ideas without actually suing them, so it doesn’t seem like something you really need to worry about most the time. As long as you’re only being inspired by others and not blatantly ripping them off, you should be fine.