Is it fine for me to copy the magic system of another author if every other aspect (story,plot,etc.) of my fantasy story is my own design? For instance, can I use bending from Avatar: The Last Airbender Comics but not use anything else from Avatar: The Last Airbender?

To clarify, I am not meaning using the world of Avatar word for word, and all the intrices of the magic system. Just, can I use the same magic system of bending (not necessarily calling it bending), that is can I use the bending of elements through martial arts in my story? Not "can I copy bending in its storytelling context within avatar.

Just misworded it. I meant can I use manipulating the elements with martial arts? I was just using Avatar as a reference point, so people got an example of what I meant.

Thank you for your responses. I got the answer I was looking for. Now I understand that I can copy magic system ideas. Just I must not copy the storyline and context in which its used. I can use bending the elements as it appears in other stories.

I guess I was not clear initially, but I was always planning on making it my own I just wanted clarity on how to go about that. Since after all plenty of stories and movies have gotten hate for being rip-offs and flat out plagiarism of other sources. i.e. Nosferatu vs Dracula, Ants and A Bug's Life.


5 Answers 5


The New York Times best selling author Jim Butcher has a very popular series called the Codex Alera. http://www.jim-butcher.com/books/alera That magic system is a mix of a couple of things but primarily it's freaking pokemon. Which he has admitted repeatedly. Even going so far as to say that the first battle among the magic users is just like any gym battle from the cartoon or games and, in his head as he was writing it, complete with the music from the cartoon. (I don't have a specific link for this, but in any interview at a con where he mentions the origin of this series, he tells how his novels were born of using two bad ideas given to him, the lost roman legion and pokemon).

If he can do it and make it on the NY Times best selling list, yes you can. But just like Butcher, you got to make it your own. The Codex series doesn't have pokeballs among the many variations to it. Start with the system from Avatar and then make it your own. You'll need to do that anyways to make it fit into your world.

  • I guess I was not clear initially, but I was always planning on making it my own I just wanted clarity on how to go about that. Since after all plenty of stories and movies have gotten hate for being rip-offs and flat out plagiarism of other sources. i.e. Nosferatu vs Dracula, Ants and A Bug's Life.
    – Alexander
    May 29, 2018 at 4:26

There are two obvious concerns: One is being a plagiarist; the second is being derivative.

Plagiarism has heavier consequences, but it's much easier to avoid. If your magic school is called Hugworts and people without magic are called Miggles, then yeah, you're going to have a problem -- but if you aren't quite as blatant as that, then you've got some pretty strong protections. In general, ideas cannot be copyrighted. So unless you're copying a system that's fairly unique, and goes into substantial detail, and you're copying all that detail with no real modification -- unless you're that blatant, then it's hard to make a case that you're plagiarizing, rather than simply, say, being inspired by the previous work, or coming up with similar ideas on your own.

Being derivative is a more subtle thing. It's the sense that you've read this story before; that this has already been done and done again; that the story is uninspired and just going through familiar territory. It's more subjective -- and some people love reading something that's obviously a kind of spin-off of something else they really enjoyed. Some people will read your martial-arts-with-elemental-magic and go "How awesome, this is just like what I saw on Avatar!", while others will go "YAWN, this is just like what I saw on Avatar."

Some points to consider about being derivative are:

  • How close are you, really, to the work you're imitating? Can you put in some major distinction?
  • Are your tone, style, genre the same as the original? (A horror story with vampires is a very different thing from a love story with vampires.)
  • How do you actually feel about people associating you with the original piece; with people judging you as "similar", for good and for ill? Does that sound awesome or awful?
  • How popular is the original work? Is it something everybody knows, or is it something really obscure, and most people won't even make the connection?

These sound to me like the major considerations to take into account. And, if you feel like your writing is "too similar" (no matter what, precisely, that means for you), or if beta readers feel your writing is "too familiar" (whatever that means to them), then the thing to do isn't necessarily to toss the whole idea. Instead, start looking for ways you can keep some of the foundation, but also make the mechanism different, unique, special for your particular story. That'll usually do the trick!


The short answer is probably "not any more". At least, not at the moment.

[Stock "Not a lawyer" disclaimer]

The burden of proof for an accusation of plagiarism would rest with the plaintiff (but note there may be jurisdictional differences), and if the question had been "can I use a system of magic where people can manipulate the elements?", that idea has been used frequently enough - and for long enough - that no plaintiff would be able to prove the idea came from them. This would be reinforced by other aspects of the writing having nothing to do with any particular work.

Unfortunately, now you've asked this question in the public domain and used the word "copy" with a reference to a specific Nickelodeon / Viacom show, any lawyer for the plaintiff would have all the evidence they would need.

If you're writing for pleasure or specifically calling it "fanfiction", it is unlikely that any case would ever be brought. But if you're intending commercial publication this is likely to be problematic.

But all is not lost. If you can show that the question was a start point, and since asking you've done further research (particularly classical Chinese, Greek and Indian mythology), and your writing involves descriptions and terms more reminiscent of those - or of something you've thought of yourself - any case would be unlikely to succeed. If you can find something that was written earlier (particularly several hundred years earlier) than the series, it won't have mattered that the series was the initial inspiration for the idea.

And broader reading from a variety of sources is never bad advice.

  • Another option is changing the name of the SE account so they can't prove the hypothetical book has the same author.
    – J.G.
    May 26, 2018 at 13:56
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    I will note that the question was "is it fine," not "is it legal" (even those that tag was used.) I would have answered just as you did, but I'll always say that it's never nice to copy ideas without getting permission or giving attribution. Maybe you can get away with it, maybe you can't. But it's still not "fine" to do so. ;) May 26, 2018 at 16:23
  • I have edited my posted question so that is more clear what I am asking. I do not plan on copying avatar in all its storytelling content, just asking about using "bending" as it appears and defined in avatar.
    – Alexander
    May 26, 2018 at 20:50
  • Just misworded it. I meant can I use manipulating the elements with martial arts? I was just using Avatar as a reference point, so people got an example of what I meant.
    – Alexander
    May 26, 2018 at 21:00
  • Again, I was trying to phrase my question as the guy who answered my question did in the paragraph starting burden of proof. Don't see why my question has any legal implications. Was just trying to clarify what counts as plagiarism in writing magic systems. By copy I meant copying bending, not all the rest of stuff in avatar. That would not only be illegal but go against my ethics and joy of being a writer.
    – Alexander
    May 26, 2018 at 21:12

You can watch almost any "kung fu" movie from the 1970s through 2000 and see "tao masters" waving their arms while various objects – water, swords, dinnerware, tree limbs – go flying and curving through space.

I think you will discover as you write your stories it will be more interesting to come up with your own particular hows and whys of your magic system.

With a little worldbuilding these ideas will add depth and richness to your themes and characters. The won't just be a cool superpower, but will inform what the stories are about.

  • Thank you. Your answer is the most helpful yet. So I indeed can you manipulating the elements, but most give my own hows and whys. And I must call it something besides "bending", correct?
    – Alexander
    May 26, 2018 at 21:35
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    "Bending" is a nice term but now it is associated with that specific show (TV advertising campaigns tend to aggressively "own" the public mindspace). Yes, I say come up with your own history of this magic, who discovered it and who tamed it, and the various factions that learned to use it and what they believed…. Some will see it as a philosophy of "truth" some will see it as "power". Let the factions come up with their own names and flavors. You will have a rich world in which to tell your ideas.
    – wetcircuit
    May 26, 2018 at 22:02

Sure! I'm actually doing a project on that, too. One thing you can do so that it doesn't get labeled as a rip-off, however, is to make the magic system your own. Explain how bending came to be, the science behind it, its origins--whatever else. The ability to control elements has been used and reused many times, it would be awesome if you did your own take on it.


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