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3 years ago a friend of mine shared the outline of a short story ( 1 page) inspired by Wild Swans the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. Last year I began to write a screenplay inspired by the same fairytale. Last years I also did copyright the script under the Writers Guild of America East. This past weekend that friend who haven't spoken to for almost 3 years, began harassing me on FB stating that i plagiarized her outline and she said she wants to sue me. Is that a possibility? Best Loredana

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    You should unfriend that person. – wetcircuit Oct 24 '18 at 1:49
  • Do you mean copyright violation rather than plagiarism? They're somewhat different things. – RamblingChicken Oct 24 '18 at 6:53
  • This is a legal question; and we are not lawyers. I am not a lawyer. The answer will vary depending on the country. In the USA, you can be sued, and she can challenge your copyright (SHE owned the copyright on the outline the moment she finished it; no formal registration is needed, and you admit your story relied upon her work). But it is also true that in the USA the idea for a story is not always protected. I believe she could still sue you, and if it goes to trial a jury will decide if she was wronged, and how much of your profits are rightfully hers. But, as I said, I am not a lawyer. – Amadeus Oct 24 '18 at 11:12
  • @Galastel the topic is about Plagiarism, Copyright is actually something else. I don't think you are making the topic clearer by adding the Copyright tag. – wetcircuit Oct 24 '18 at 12:19
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    Said former friend is talking about suing, which would make this a copyright case. Plagiarism is legal (although a very serious offense in some fields). – David Thornley Oct 24 '18 at 17:40
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Wild Swans is not an original story, and the text is in the public domain. I am eyerolling at this person's audacity at claiming originality on a derivative work that is already a pastiche of traditional folktales. Some people are just ridiculous. Can she sue you? Yes, probably, and you can counter sue her for defamation (libel).

I can publish Hans Christian Anderson's text word-for-word and it is not a copyright violation, but if I do not credit Hans Christian Anderson as the original author it is plagiarism. They are not the same thing.

Where plagiarism is most significant is in academic/research papers where failing to credit a source is the same as claiming the ideas are your own. In the context of creative writing, plagiarism is nearly impossible to "prove", but public opinion can lead to professional embarrassment, even the loss of a job or the perception of integrity.

This is not legal advice. Only a judge would have legal authority to decide, and the deciding factor (like a copyright claim) would be intent.

1. Did you intend to plagiarize her outline for your screenplay?

2. Can she point to an original idea in her outline that you used, which is not in the original story?

3 years ago a friend of mine shared the outline of a short story ( 1 page) inspired by Wild Swans the fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen.

You have left the details vague. Did she "share" the outline in a public writing group? Or did she "share" it privately with you only, perhaps with a mutual understanding that you would collaborate on the project? Were there any communications between you two at the time (3yrs ago, or since) discussing her outline specifically or the Wild Swans story in general?

We cannot answer these things for you, but you already know the truth of your intent. If she can produce the promise of collaboration, even vague encouragement from you that she develop the outline into a full story, she has grounds (physical evidence) to claim that you have plagiarized her outline, even if she hasn't seen your final screenplay. In some courts this is called "breach of implied contract." She can easily claim that you had a spoken agreement to collaborate, and that you viewed her outline before you began writing your own version and cut her out of the process.

Whether or not you decide to confront this person directly, or defend yourself in your social community is another matter. You do not want to get in a mud-slinging contest with a pig. She has nothing to lose – her investment was a 1-page outline 3 years ago. If she can score points by claiming your finished work is somehow her own, then she gets to pretend she has written an entire screenplay by benefit of minimal effort and some public drama. As writers we know the difference between an outline and a screenplay – they are not even comparable – but her goal is to gain reputation points while you do the actual work. Any public response from you that acknowledges her outline is a boost to her.

Unfortunately, outside people will judge you based on how you respond (not about plagiarism per se, but they will judge your character in general), so be mindful. If you have records of those old conversations (email, public posts) review them so as not to make contradictory statements. Expect that she will try to make them public to legitimize herself.

Good luck!

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    Point 2 should also be underscored, and in big red font. :) It's the key to the whole thing. And unless I'm much mistaken (not a lawyer), "original idea" would have to be one that's not in the original story, and also not in the other derivative works that are based on Wild Swans. Right? – Galastel Oct 24 '18 at 13:47
  • An original story element appearing in both would be a "smoking gun" in the court of public opinion anyway. – wetcircuit Oct 24 '18 at 13:56
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    Original ideas can't be copyrighted, but it shades into things that can be copyrighted. If a contract existed, it would be up to her to show that there actually was a contract, and that gets dicey with oral contracts or implied contracts. If this gets serious, OP needs to talk with a lawyer. – David Thornley Oct 24 '18 at 17:44

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