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I'm looking to write a Metamorphosis style short story where the reader wakes up as an animal for no apparent reason, and everything goes crazy.

Now, the Kafkain influence is clear just from this short description although I have a very different plan for the arc of the story. The Metamorphosis may or may not be public domain--I am having a hard time collecting that info.

Would I be testing copyright laws if this were to get published? How far is too far? Am I in danger of stealing Kafka's story either in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of the reader?

  • It is public domain most places, it was published in 1915 and Kafka died in 1924. His native Germany's copyright law is Death + 70 so 1994. In the US everything published before 1923 is public domain. Are you curious about any country in particular? – stonemetal Feb 26 '18 at 3:04
  • @stonemetal Thanks! I didn't know when in history things started to change. And I'm US, so you've more than clarified that issue. Thank you. – trrrrillionaire Feb 26 '18 at 20:59
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If you have similar characters, scenes and plot line, you are too close to the source material. Having a similar plot, idea or device is fine, but you have to find a way to make it yours.

If simply being similar to an idea or plot was forbidden, no one would be able to write a story as pretty much every possible plot has been used somewhere.

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    Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Only done once? – user16226 Feb 25 '18 at 14:15
  • This makes sense. Indeed everything is a remix. I just wouldn't want to fly too close to the sun here. It's hard to know where the line is. – trrrrillionaire Feb 25 '18 at 15:34
  • @trrrrillionaire - the problem is that the line varies. One way in which it varies will work against you here: Metamorphosis is an extremely well known and very original story. Similarities to it are therefore very easy to recognize, and may be distracting, whereas similarities to more generic, less well-known stories are less likely to bother people. But if you put enough original material into it as well, I'm sure it can still work despite that. – Jules Feb 27 '18 at 2:31
  • @Jules, good point. But as long as the main similarity is that the MC gets turned into a creature and the rest of it is different, it can slip by. If on the other hand the MC has an uncaring family, a job he doesn't like and eventually dies of depression/suicide unloved and unwanted, then there is a problem. – Dan Clarke Feb 27 '18 at 2:54
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    @MarkBaker "Boy meets girl." What a fabulous idea! If you're not planning to write that book, do you mind if I borrow this idea? – Jay Feb 28 '18 at 5:38
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RE copyright: Copyright protects the specific words in a story, not an idea. If you took someone else's book and rewrote it all in your own words, changed the names of the places and characters, etc, your book might be totally unoriginal, but it would not violate the original author's copyright. There can be hazy cases like, for example, if you write a song that copies key phrases from someone else's song. I suppose if you wrote a book where you copied someone else's book and changed 90% of the text but kept 10%, that might be iffy. (I wouldn't try it.)

But if, say, you wrote a story about a young boy who discovers that he's a wizard and goes off to wizard college and fights evil wizards, the fact that your story sounds an awful lot like Harry Potter doesn't make it a copyright violation, not unless you copy whole sentences and paragraphs from Harry Potter.

Now all that is quite a different thing from saying that people might say your book is a rip-off and unoriginal because you just stole the whole story from Metamorphoses. You can write a story that steals IDEAS right and left and you won't violate anyone's copyright. But it might still be a lame and unoriginal story.

That can be very subjective. I don't think that every romance is stolen from Romeo & Juliet or that every scene where someone is murdered around water is stolen from Psycho or that every story that has multiple points of view is copied from Roshomon. But I've also seen plenty of books and movies that WERE obvious rip-offs of some hit. You have to ask yourself, What new idea or new twist am I adding here? If you're just taking someone else's story, changing the names of the characters, and shuffling some scenes around until you're sure you're safe on copyright, that's one thing. If you say, Hey, this other story was very interesting, but what would have happened if ... Or, but wouldn't it be interesting to write a story like that but where there's another character who ..., then you could have an original story that just happens to borrow some ideas.

  • I think I am most worried about the social repercussions of having a story that looks like a rip-off, and where the line is before readers see it and say "That's just a rip-off of Kafka!" and turn on me. I ask because I see other stories skirt this all the time. For instance, on a recommendation from a friend, I watched the first season of "Mr. Robot". The friend said, "It's Fight Club with computers". And I couldn't help but wonder how they managed to use such a similar plot and delivery, all the way down to Fincher-esque camera techniques and The Pixies' "Where is My Mind" at the outro. – trrrrillionaire Feb 28 '18 at 20:43
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    Oh, I was thinking of Ovid's "Metamorphoses"! You did say Kafka. There's a certain irony here: In Ovid, people are turned into animals and everything goes crazy. Like a group of men are out hunting, one of them is turned into a dear, and then the other hunters kill their friend. I've never read Kafka's book, but it sounds like a rip-off of Ovid. :-) This is what I was trying to get at with my last paragraph. It's very subjective, it's not like we can calculate that you copied 37.8% of the ideas from this other story. All we can say is, is it different enough to be interesting? – Jay Feb 28 '18 at 22:05

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