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Good artists copy; great artists steal.

This famous Picasso quote often reminds me that the best artworks are rather a mix of many other artworks instead of something completely new. Walt Disney made a new version of old fairytales, as Steve Jobs mixed all the previous technologies into one beautiful thing.

Having this in mind, I was curious whether I am the only one who is copying my most favourite writers like Garcia Marquez or Haruki Murakami and stealing some of their phrases to come up with the best writing?

Do you also mix your own writing style with works of other writers?

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Well, first of all, Picasso never said it. Please see, for example, this investigation which could find no evidence to suggest Picasso ever said this. In fact, the earliest quote that could be found to resemble the non-Picasso quote was by W. H. Davenport Adams, who wrote "That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil." T. S. Elliot expanded on this further much later in “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

Regardless of the fact that Picasso never said it, the meaning behind it is likely far more in line with what T. S. Elliot says here. It shouldn't be taken as literally stealing someone's work and claiming it as your own. The fact is, what you write has likely been written before. It is a great writer who can stand on the shoulders of giants and make something unique from what has gone before. The concept of "stealing" in this sense is not to be taken literally at all, but is used to convey the idea that poets, musicians, artists and writers know the history of their craft, and are able to take it and transcend it and do it better than those that did it before them.

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    Nicely put! I am really trying to write something unique while following the style of my favourite writers. My big idea doesn't go along with spoiling and stealing but rather creating something wonderful! – Ąžuolas Lomonosovas Apr 27 '18 at 11:59
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I do not, to my knowledge ever. I am not a lawyer but I believe copyright applies: If the sentence or fragment you want to use is original (meaning it cannot be found in multiple sources or from a time prior to its publication) then that author holds the "copyright", and you are violating it. This has been held up in court for even three notes of a song ("My Sweet Lord").

Further, I think it has been held that using it in a commercial work is not "fair use", that is for instructional or educational purposes, or an example.

For example, I would not use the phrase "You can't handle the truth!" in a commercial work (but think it is okay in this instructional message).

IMO (and perhaps the law's opinion) you are stealing somebody else's creative work for the purpose of making a profit. Finding the phrase in several venues is one way to show that specific attribution of its origin is indeterminate, thus nobody can own the copyright. Even if you cannot, the court might hold that the phrase is not original enough to prevent other authors from stumbling upon it. (edit: Or if many sources are found, I believe the court may hold the copyright was not sufficiently protected and has become public domain.)

But that does not sound like the case here.

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  • My Sweet Lord... Wasn't it more than just 3 notes? It was that and more? : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Sweet_Lord#Copyright_infringement_suit – Malady Apr 27 '18 at 0:52
  • @J.G. Do you know if The Simpsons got permission or licensed it? Do you have the legal team behind you of The Simpsons to tell you that you cannot get in trouble for using it? I don't have a full time staff of attorneys to vet everything I do; I guess you are quite fortunate to have those kinds of resources at your disposal, so you don't risk every dime you have making silly assumptions about whether your case is defensible without all the facts. I don't have those kinds of resources. But I can read the text of the law and successful cases, so my strategy is "better safe than sorry." – Amadeus Apr 27 '18 at 10:06
  • @J.G. It is my understanding, as I said in the post, that they DO have to track down copyright owners in order to use their original material. Your ideas of "what makes sense" are wrong when it comes to law and intellectual property. But of course believe what you wish at your own peril. I would consult an attorney before I did. Or more likely, do some work and avoid the issue altogether by not plagiarizing another writer. – Amadeus Apr 27 '18 at 12:21
  • @J.G. They are not scare quotes, the phrase is the positive version of what is implied by "I sincerely doubt" and quoted to indicate I think it is false, it does NOT make sense. Copyright is jealously protected and how much that inconveniences producers is not an issue, breaking the law because it is inconvenient to obey it is not a defense. Further, your attempt to exaggerate the inconvenience beyond reality (by the use of countless) is more silliness, especially since professional writers never have to steal from anybody. This is not a forum for debate. You had your say, leave it be. – Amadeus Apr 27 '18 at 12:47
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Stealing is bad. Quite aside from it being illegal, what satisfaction would you draw from presenting someone else's work? It's not yours, the praise it gets is not to you.

Being inspired by another author, on the other hand, is good. A work of art should inspire. And there's nothing wrong with deliberately going and seeking out the particular inspiration you need. If I'm writing war and I can't quite get the feeling of it, I might reread a bit of All Quiet on the Western Front. If I'm writing a love scene, I would go to a book that has one of those, written well. It's not about analytically looking at how somebody else did this. It's about finding that feeling I'm looking for, and then using my own words to make it happen for my characters. The other books help me find that mindset I'm looking for, and I read enough to know where to look for a particular inspiration.

Not just individual scenes either. If I set a story in a particular time and place, I'd read some of what was written then and there, to get the feeling of the particular turn of phrase that matches the setting, the way people thought. For instance, if I were writing something Victorian, I'd look for phrases like "by and by". It's almost a subconscious thing - I read enough of this (whatever I choose this to be), it's easier for me to have my characters talk that way, create the plot that way, etc. So, to continue with the Victorian example, I'd deliberately read Jane Austen, looking to get some particular feeling, I'd be inspired by her style, but I wouldn't steal her words. I'd find my own.

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I'm a writer who will probably self-publish. I'm not a fiction author yet. I do not steal phrases from favorite authors, but I do steal phrases from all over, if they are generic but powerful. For example: the phrase "I just wanted my men safe," was in a war movie that I saw recently, and was powerful in that scene - it fits in a section of my non-war story and works well. I took it. The phrase "I very much doubt that you could do either" was similarly strong in another movie, but doesn't really apply to any of my story. So yes, ears open. SNL ex-actor Kristen Wiig says she keeps a little notebook to write down odd things she hears on planes, and uses those phrases, ideas, and quirks in her characters.

Certain ideas show up in my stories ... and I realize months later that they are similar to ideas from favorite authors. But, that's one reason why why those are my favorite authors.

I've seen some stories that are clearly driven in recognizable part from another story. Eragon looks amazingly similar to some of the stories of Pern. I recommend reading this link because Paolini has been accused of plagiarizing not just McCaffrey ... but also Tolkien and two other authors. If this is the sort of thing you have in mind - I strongly recommend against it.

I don't know the legal angle. There is discussion at the link above how that worked out for Paolini. There is plenty of ire directed his way (and even with Jeremy Irons, the movie stunk.)

Answer: It happens, there is a (legal) line to not cross, you will annoy some readers, and in the end develop your own voice.

As far as structure and flow, (not your specific question, but related) there are recognized formats that seem to withstand time at a mid- and gross level. Following Amadeus' advice, I diagrammed several paragraphs of favorite authors spanning decades, and will apply some of the structure (not words) to the beginning of my story. (I was surprised how similar the structures were between very different authors over forty years.)


More answer, to the title question: "Do writers copy other writers?" not "Should writers copy other writers?"

Yes. Writers copy other writers. There are caveats, such as the acceptable degree of copying, but that is not part of your question.

Here's a link.

Here's another:

Copywork was the primary way that schools in 18th and 19th century America taught children how to write. It was thought to be a highly effective way to teach students handwriting as well as proper grammar, punctuation, and syntax.

Yes. Writers copy other writers, which was your question.

Should you plagiarize? That's a different question entirely, and the answer is no.

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  • Copying the style or plot or "ideas" or structure of something is legal, using a similar character is legal, using specific sequences of original words, which is the OP's question, I am pretty sure that is an actionable violation of copyright. I advise strongly against it, self-published or not. Your two phrases, when googled, only hit on this site and your post! Google "You can't handle the truth" and this clearly identifies "A Few Good Men" and Jack Nicholson's character, IMO implying much legal jeopardy in using it. – Amadeus Apr 26 '18 at 16:39
  • @Amadeus Yes, after your answer I tried variations of that phrase I took, and found the same result - also tried the shorter 'want my men safe' (as well as other variants) and found it originally in a Louis L'amour book, (not the movie I saw) and also found it elsewhere, and felt a sigh a relief. I think I'm on the legal side of the question. – DPT Apr 26 '18 at 16:56
  • @Amadeus Oh, but, also, I'm pretty sure you could use things like 'To be or not to be' without attribution - the reference would be clear to most - I think this gets into public domain at that point, but again shows the caveat issue of copying writers. – DPT Apr 26 '18 at 16:58
  • You can quote works long out of copyright (or in Shakespeare's case, never IN copyright). I think it is lifetime of the author plus 75 years or something. So sure, quote Shakespeare all you like, you can literally publish his works and sell them verbatim in their entirety. If you steal from a living author, or even a recently dead author, you are violating copyright. – Amadeus Apr 26 '18 at 17:19
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Structure, high level plot "mile markers," or archetypal elements are all fair game. I put this in the same space as "casting" your novel by picking people/actors to play roles in your works. At the end of the day, the low level implementation has to be different and the work itself must be transformative if it is to use existing elements.

So, yes, there are things that can and should be recycled into future work. And it's unavoidable. But at the low level you risk running afoul of copyright law if you start literally stealing the words of others. And frankly, you deserve the impoverishment of the soul that will surely come upon you, as exacted by the writing gods, to say nothing of the legal system's plans for your pocket change.

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I keep a notebook of all the most beautiful metaphors I read. Once in a blue moon, I'll pull it out and look through the pages, but never while I'm writing. I want to be inspired by their words, not copy them, because you can't just pluck what you like and make it fit into your work. Doing so will make your writing feel like patchwork as there is overall style and context to consider.

If you read often enough, the styles that ring to you best will seep into your work naturally. No need to go pillaging.

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You sound like a perfect candidate for studying Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces (AKA the Monomyth). It is not so much that people steal or blatantly copy as it is writers draw upon known story tropes or elements from multiple sources (mythology, cinema, comics, etc) that no one story is truly original. Do writers copy other writers? I would answer that with a question of "Have you ever watched The Lion King and Hamlet?" The Lion King is a reinterpretation.

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