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I am working on my debut story. In my freetime, I write another story that will be the start of a series. The series consists of Steampunk fairytale retellings.

Lately, I have been worrying that it copies The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. To its credit, it is the reason I even knew what a fairytale was. I understand that there are going to be similarities between certain books. A group banding together to overthrow a corrupt leader... that is nothing new in the world of dystopian books.

But the fact that mine is a Fairytale retelling series along with other details, that is what scares me. I have chosen not to read The Lunar Chronicles so I can keep my stories as original as possible. However, whenever I hear of a detail, I worry that I will be under legal fire if I publish my story. I am willing to move on to other projects after my debut and write this series to keep my sanity.

If anyone has advice, please respond as I am anxious with fear.

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    Unless you are copying and pasting passage directly into your own story, I wouldn't worry about it. – Kit Z. Fox Dec 12 '15 at 13:28
  • @KitZ.Fox I would. Hellen Keller had trouble for being 'too similar.' As for Lauren, I might recommend you let someone read your draft or outline, someone who would know how close you can get without plagiarizing. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 13 '15 at 1:06
  • @TommyMyron, can you give more details about the work about Helen Keller that you mentioned had legal trouble? Was the other work involved specifically about Helen Keller as well? Because I'd be amazed if two stories that were only similar in concept, such as the similarity that Lauren Hammes' story seems to have with The Lunar Chronicles could give rise to legal action. Retellings of fairytales are extremely common. Just as a fun way to illustrate that, look how many "Fractured Fairy Tales" there are on TV Tropes: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FracturedFairyTale – Lostinfrance Dec 16 '15 at 11:04
  • Certainly. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Keller#Writings While it wasn't intentional, the claims that it had been plagiarized were founded simply on the grounds of it being 'too similar.' – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 16 '15 at 18:48
  • @TommyMyron, I misunderstood your comment. I thought it was about a recent film or book about Helen Keller, rather than a work by Helen Keller herself. To be honest I don't think this example is relevant. It relates to the law of more than a century ago. There have been huge changes since then. (Just for interest, the reason Dickens' villains have such odd names is that before the Defamation Act 1952 people could sue for libel if a bad character with their name appeared in fiction even if the fictional character bore no resemblance to them other than the name. But that's no longer so.) – Lostinfrance Dec 16 '15 at 22:01
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There are often similarities in plot. Some people make it obvious and acknowledge the source of their inspiration. "West Side Story," for example, is Romeo and Juliet set in New York City in the 1950s. Some authors steal unintentionally when they should know better. The plot in Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks" (2000) is nearly identical to the plot in the 1942 Edward G. Robinson comedy "Larceny, Inc.," although Allen has never acknowledged that and no one has sued.

Now let me discuss the law. The U.S. copyright laws are codified at vol. 17 of the United States Code (U.S.C.) §§ 101 et seq. In a copyright infringement case, the plaintiff must show: "(i) ownership of a valid copyright; and (ii) unauthorized copying of the copyrighted work.” Jorgensen v. Epic/Sony Records, 351 F.3d 46, 51 (2d Cir.2003). "To satisfy the second element of an infringement claim—the ‘unauthorized copying’ element—a plaintiff must show both that his work was actually copied and that the portion copied amounts to an improper or unlawful appropriation." Id.

Direct evidence of copying is seldom available, so the case law allows a plaintiff to establish copying circumstantially by demonstrating that the defendant accused of copying "had access to the copyrighted material, ... and that there are similarities between the two works that are probative of copying.” Id. However, a showing of similarities between the two works, coupled with access, does not necessarily prove copying because there would still be insufficient evidence of unlawful appropriation. A Slice of Pie Prods., LLC v. Wayans Bros. Entm't, 487 F. Supp. 2d 41, 47 (D. Conn. 2007).

To prove "unlawful appropriation" the plaintiff must show the existence of a “substantial similarity of protectible material in the two works,” with substantial similarity turning on “whether, in the eyes of the average lay observer, the [allegedly infringing work] [is] substantially similar to the protectible expression in the [allegedly infringed work].” Williams v. Crichton, 84 F.3d 581, 587 (2d Cir.1996). To determine substantial similarity, the Court or jury “examine[s] the similarities in such aspects as the total concept and feel, theme, characters, plot, sequence, pace, and setting.” Williams, 84 F.3d at 588.

What a copyright owner can't sue you for copying are such things as “scenes a faire, sequences of events that ‘necessarily result from the choice of a setting or situation," ‘stock’ themes commonly linked to a particular genre, and ideas, because “a copyright does not protect an idea, but only the expression of an idea,” A Slice of Pie Prods., 487 F. Supp. at 47 (citations omitted).

In sum: If you read anything that is like the work you are writing, be careful. You can adopt the idea (e.g. war is hell, power corrupts, etc.) or the stock theme (e.g. lovers who are forbidden to each other by their families) If you get sued, a legitimate defense is that you never heard of the plaintiff's work.

With that in mind, recognize that George Harrison's song "My Sweet Lord" was found to be substantially similar to the 1962 Chiffon's hit, "He's So Fine," and Harrison admitted that he was familiar with the song.

The Beach Boys' brilliant composer, Brian Wilson, however, now admits that "Surfin' USA" was written as an homage to Chuck Berry. "I just took 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and rewrote it into something of our own," he told the Los Angeles Times. Wilson's problem is that his version is substantially similar to "Sweet Little Sixteen," so much so that Wilson often slips in Berry's lyrics when singing "Surfin' USA" in concert. Id.

If you try to write something "in the style" of another author, be very very careful. It is a jury that decides whether your work is substantially similar to the plaintiff's work, and sometimes their decision may not exactly be "substantially similar" to the boundaries drawn in copyright law. I personally didn't think that "Blurred Lines" was substantially similar to Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up," aside from the party-type atmosphere, which shouldn't be a protected aspect of the song. But a jury thought otherwise. Fortunately, a jury verdict is not precedential or controlling beyond that case.

  • In your examples, it was the music, not the words that were "substantially similar. Basically, if you can sing the lyrics of Surfing USA to another person's music, that's potential for trouble. – Tom Au Jul 4 '17 at 17:38
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You're probably fine. In all actuality, they probably won't even be aware of your book. Instead of being afraid of being sued, worry about being called unoriginal.

There are a ton of fairy-tale inspired books, especially around Snow white and Little Red Riding Hood. They're all technically derivative, but each has characterization, plot, and tone that makes it dramatically different.

I'd recommend finding a plot outline of TLC and comparing it against yours. Read just a random chapter or two. See what reviewers say about it, what they latched onto. That will let you know your novel is different.

Sure, on the face of it, your concept may seem the same. But your premise will likely read differently.

Now, like all people giving lazy writing advice, I'll use my own work as an example. I'm certain my novel will be compared to Harry Potter (a guy goes to a magic school - OMG, it's just like Harry Potter!). Even though my story features a nephilim, is New Adult, doesn't make up new magical creatures, and is incredibly violent and dark.

Concept: A young man struggles to find his meaning. That is literally thousands of books, including Harry Potter.

Premise: Yukki must learn to control his powers to protect himself from what appear to be the good guys. His only help is from a mentor, a few classmates, and his stalker “girlfriend” - all of whom seem to be completely evil.

Not at all Harry Potter, from what plot summaries I've read. There is a heavy romance plotline. And the adult content, violence, and dark tone of my book is bad enough I'm putting a warning label on it. But, I've already had my first comparison from a group critique. =)

Most main characters follow The Hero's Journey. Just because they do doesn't make them copies.

In short, as long as you don't have an extremely similar plotline (complete with settings and what role does what) or perfectly-matching characters (complete with descriptions, personalities, and flaws), don't worry about the similarities. Worry about writing a good book with a unique premise and tone.

  • This reminded me of a South Park episode where Butters is tormented by his sidekick shouting "Simpsons did it!" every time he comes up with an idea. There are no truly original ideas in that all works of art (writing or otherwise) are based upon a unique and diverse set of influences. No one is creative in a vacuum! Your writing will always bear some similarity to that of others; it is the intricate crafting of the many fine details that make it your own. – Jody Lee Bruchon Dec 18 '15 at 4:14
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"Ideas" can't be copyrighted. Only expressions of ideas.

That means that when "West Side Story" substituted warring gangs for warring families in a teen-aged love tragedy, that was not "copying." Nor would a story about two lovers, one of whom was Union and the other Confederate in the American Civil War.

What could get you into trouble is copying e.g. Shakespeare's style and expression. For instance, if you used something like "Roberto, why are you Roberto?" in place of "Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" that would be copying. And this would be true even if you changed the context from a "dating" to say, a professional situation.

The most important thing to do in your story is to change the names of characters and descriptions, and make sure they don't say the same things as the characters from the original. They can even mean the same things, but that's a different story.

  • Correct point but Monopoly is not a good choice to illustrate it. Nearly all local versions of Monopoly are licensed versions of the game made with permission of the owners, Parker Brothers and its parent company Hasbro. There have been several unlicensed rivals with slightly different rules - but many of them have been sued (with varying results), so it's not a reassuring example to follow for the original questioner. Not that she should worry. Her story is far more different to Marissa Meyer's than a Monopoly knockoff is to Monopoly. Broad similarity of theme doesn't count in law. – Lostinfrance Dec 16 '15 at 10:35
  • @Lostinfrance Monopoly is an amusing example. It was mostly lifted from a game called the "Landlord Game" which was intended illustrate the evils of the propertied classes. Possibly, capitalism too. Monopoly turned the tables and valorized property & money. Very close to being plagiarism. There is a book about the whole history of Monopoly and the Landlord Game. – a4android Jul 26 '19 at 9:43

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