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Spoilers for Green Book in the E.g. section

I listen to a lot of music and when I come up with stories I often use songs as a source of inspiration.

However what I was wondering is are songs and other artforms protected the same as writing and movies.

E.g. If I write a book about a racist white bloke driving around a black musician in the deep south and having a rethink about life that would probably get me sued. (Green Book for anyone who hasnt watched it)

However what would happen if I wrote a story about a woman who's child was stood about to jump from a building and when they jumped they actually flew away. (Save the Life of My Child - Simon and Garfunkel)

TL;DR : Do Songs and Paintings have the same rules and protections as Books and Film for copying (into written form).

(Feel free to edit the post to streamline it or make it easier to read)

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    The Green Book example is complicated by the fact that it is based on a true story. If you write a story about a white person driving around a black person, and base it on freely available facts about Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga, then it's not "plagiarism" if some of the story matche The Green Book. – Acccumulation Mar 4 at 21:49
  • Are you inspired by the music, or by the story behind the music? In any case, plagiarism is a very deliberate act.. It is virtually impossible to plagiarize without knowing you have done it. – ashleylee Mar 6 at 21:24
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Do Songs and Paintings have the same rules and protections as Books and Film for copying (into written form).

Songs and paintings are protected under copyright laws, but it might be helpful to understand what copyright is meant to do.

Copyright is not intended to rob you of your creativity under the threat of lawyers. Copyright is intended to protect an author from being republished without their permission.

Plagiarism is a separate issue where you attempt to pass some else's work as your own without attribution.

In your case you are not attempting to republish someone else's work, you want to write an original story based on ideas suggested from another artist's work.

There are recognized exceptions, but your examples are very safe. Even the "Green Book" derivative, as long as there are key differences in the story and you are not ripping off character names and chapters wholesale, you are fine.

One of the big determining factors (you could call it a pillar) of copyright violation is the Market Effect your work has on the original. Would someone buy your book thinking they are buying "Green Book 2"? Are you deliberately trying to trick readers into believing your story is the "real" version, or a sanctioned sequel? Has the success of your book effected sales of the original?

In some situations a market effect isn't possible. Your novel cannot financially compete against a painting or song, they are not in the same market. This is sometimes called "transformative", a novel is not a painting is not a song and there is no possibility the buyer would be mistaken (however, they might mistakenly believe your version is "official" or sanctioned by the original artist, which might be a market effect).

You can quote song lyrics (with attribution), but you will need permission to republish the entire song as a text in your novel.

  • "Your novel cannot financially compete against a painting or song, they are not in the same market. This is sometimes called "transformative"" Being in a different medium and being transformative are different things. – Acccumulation Mar 4 at 21:40
  • @Acccumulation saying "it's different" doesn't add information to the answer. Do you want to share a link or something constructive? – wetcircuit Mar 4 at 21:50
  • "Copyright is intended to protect an author from being republished without their permission." Too limited. Copyright is intended to prevent an author's work from being used without permission. Creating a new work significantly based on an old own, or on distinctive characters from the old work, is infringement. But having similar more or less generic scenes: say a meeting, a breakup, and a reunion, would not be. – David Siegel Mar 5 at 1:22
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I am not a lawyer, and this is a legal question. Read This Recent Answer of mine.

The answer is (supported by a link to an attorney blog) the courts will look at the totality of your work. If they find the work is "substantially similar" then you infringe copyright.

Because of that, if your plot is beat for beat the same as Green Book, then you are probably infringing. For songs, which DO have copyright protection for both the notes and lyrics, you can still infringe with a novel. Perhaps the story told in Bohemian Rhapsody could be infringed upon by a movie or novel. I'd find it strange to consider anything in "I wanna hold your hand" (Beatles) infringible; but I am not a lawyer. Some songs do tell a story, and I think you could infringe, but likely not so for a single event like a child flying.

Some things are in so many movies and stories that no particular author can claim exclusive ownership, which is a prerequisite to copyright -- It must be original work and not covered under a previous copyright that is now expired.

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One aspect is originality. When you describe a plot to someone, most are subconsciously mapping it to things they know. Its human nature. We like finding patterns and recognizing things..

From purely an originality point of view, it makes little sense to copy, clone or have similar events unfold.

On the other hand, life brings all kinds of situations and things can be similar and happen to others as they do to you. You dropped your keys, the lead character in that film drops their keys.. not a copyright able thing.

But we are all batteries for machines, is far less a day to day scenario and could subjectively be infringement.

There are many clone films, where a similar plot unfurls, but its usually a collection of things that pass the line to infringement and how unique the ideas are.

Lost love, breakups, having a fight over which movie to see, basically not copyrightable. Finding an alien has landed in my pea soup and we can communicate via my teaspoon by tapping morse code, and he happens to be allergic to peas, may be a little more copyrightable as its more unique of an idea.

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Shakespeare said there are only 5 (or is it 7?) different stories you can tell. Everything else is a variation of those.

Here is a quick non-attorney safe question: imagine you walk to either the publisher who printed Green Book or have read it. And this is a honest publisher. How would you answer the question "what makes your novel distinct from Green Book so it will have some shelf space of its own?" Replacing a Chevy Truck with a VW beetle probably will not suffice.

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To answer the last point first, songs, paintings, books, films, and other creative works are all protected by copyright, and the same general rules apply. Sometimes those rules look at "how much" of a work is used by another, and it is easier to use all of a poem or a song than all of a novel.

This is a question, largely, of whether a new work is a derivative work of an existing, protected work. (You are legally free to be derivative of Shakespeare if you like, he is long out of copyright.) The concept of "fair use" also is relevant, in a US context. See This question and answer for more on fair use.

Using a concept in a generic way is not infringement. The more of the distinctive features of an existing work, or of an existing character from a work, that you use, the more likely it is that the new work will be judged to infringe.

Also, while the market effect, mentioned in another answer is important, it is not the only test. Making a clear sequel to an existing work, or using as a central character a well-known and distinctive character form an existing (protected) work, is likely to be considered infringement.

Transformative use does matter. This means not just another medium -- indeed converting a novel into a film, say, is not considered transformative at all. Rather, it means using elements for a different purpose. The most obvious case is parody, where the elements of the original work are used to comment on the original, or to make a point very different from the sort of point the original was making. Quoting a poem in a book of literary theory, to analyze its construction, is transformative. Quoting it in a novel to have the characters respond to it in much the way that the poet presumably intended his audience to respond is not. Having them respond in a very different way -- having a character treat Feeling Groovy as a lament, say, or "The Unquiet Grave" as a love song, might well be transformative.

The amount of a work quoited or used matters, but it is not a simple or clear-cut rule of X% may be used. In the case of Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985) the US Supreme Court ruled that a magazine article which quoted only some 300 words from a 500-page book was a copyright infringement, because those words were "the heart of the book" according to the Court. That is a somewhat extreme case, but it shows the possibilities.

The more distinctive, point-by-point similarities there are to the source, the more likely it is to be considered infringement. And the more significant, original content there is, the less likely.

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