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So I want to write a fictional book based on Borges' Library of Babel idea. The only thing I would preserve is the setting.

However, I am unsure of the legality of it. Is the setting copyrightable? How does that work? I don't think you can copyright ideas, so if I called it something else would it be fine?

Note, I'm not trying to legally worm my way into stealing it, I plan to give full attribution as the inspiration; but I just want to know if it is legal or what the best course of action is.

This is in the United States.

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    Hi CapnShanty and welcome to writing.SE The obvious question is whether it is strictly necessary to have the "library" of 410 pages books in your work of fiction. Could it be something else, related perhaps, but not identical to it? If you think of what parts of the Library of Babel you liked for your story, perhaps you can find a way to derive something entirely yours.
    – NofP
    Dec 18 '18 at 19:54
  • Yeah I didn't plan on even using the 410 pages, just really the concept of an infinite cell-based library
    – CapnShanty
    Dec 19 '18 at 14:49
  • Well that's the question I'm asking, user57423. Can you? Is it legal? I don't know
    – CapnShanty
    Dec 19 '18 at 14:50
  • (personally i'd be flattered if someone wrote a story in one of my worlds!)
    – CapnShanty
    Dec 19 '18 at 15:08
  • The very Wikipedia article you cite contains a list of instances in which other authors riffed on the setting or idea. You’d be in fine company. Dec 26 '18 at 4:20
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As you noted, copyright does not protect ideas. Copyright protects the expression of an idea, that is, the exact words (and/or pictures and/or sounds) used to express an idea. As long as you write a description of the setting in your own words, you are not violating the original author's copyright.

A setting such as this example is an idea and cannot be copyrighted. (Again, along as you describe it in your own words.) The "setting" here really isn't a place per se but the idea of a collection of books meeting certain characteristics. An author cannot "own" such an idea. New writers on this and similar forums often worry about such scenarios: "I am writing a book where a young man and woman fall in love but their parents object and try to prevent them from getting married, and then I came across this other book that's also about a young man and women who fall in love but their parents object and try to prevent them from getting married. Am I accidentally violating copyright?" No, you're not. Copyright does not protect general ideas, only the specific expression of those ideas.

From a creative point of view, I'd advise against copying another writer's idea too closely. Readers will think you are unoriginal and unimaginative. Better to be inspired by another writer's ideas: Take his idea, but change it enough to make it truly yours. In this case you could easily take the essential idea -- a collection of all possible books of a given length -- and throw out the part about hexagonal rooms, change the number of pages, etc.

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  • Cool thank you! The only parts I planned on keeping were the "every imaginable combination of letters" type parts and then I like the cell based deal, but I was thinking each one would be a much bigger "zone" than just the hexagons as described, each one having a garden etc etc type differences.
    – CapnShanty
    Dec 19 '18 at 14:52
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The idea that inspired you has a Wikipedia page!

Let me narrow down your question from (basically):

Can I take another author's idea and base a book on it?

to

Can I use a well-known setting and place my novel inside it?

You aren't using Borges' characters or plots. It's not like writing a story inside, say, the Harry Potter universe. You're still doing all the hard work. Lots of stories use settings from other authors.

Normally I'd say, go ask the author. But obviously this is impossible in this case. So yeah, I think you're on solid ground here.

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