13

New to the web. I just recently started to write again. I won a few highschool prizes writing short stories. Around the same time, I began to play Roleplaying games and to write different stories for different games.

Lately, I have been thinking about a few ideas. Instead of creating a story for a Roleplaying game, I decided to write them down. I have seen that you can self publish your work on Amazon. And that most "novice" novels go from 50k words to 100k.

But as I write, what worries me the most is the fact that even if I'm changing and mixing a lot of ideas. I cannot stop feeling that I have read that before somewhere else.

Is this a problem? Can I have legal issues? Is there any rule or way to check this feeling?

I don't have anyone who I trust to check for me.

Cheers.

  • 1
    You mean plagiarizing. If you aren't aware of copying something from someone else, but suspect you might be unknowingly, all you can really do is hire somebody who checks such things for a living. Or, to a lesser degree, try googling the various things that are causing concern and see if anything comes up. Even if you aren't aware of plagiarizing something but you have, it can cause problems after publication. Borrowing general ideas is mostly fine. The point at which it becomes a problem is something that only a copyright lawyer (or editor) would be able to tell you for sure. – Jason Bassford Jun 8 at 0:37
13

El ver mucho y el leer mucho avivan los ingenios de los hombres. (Seeing much and reading much sharpens one's ingenuity.)

~ Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Your fear of plagiarism is a common anxiety for beginning writers. After you gain experience and confidence in yourself, you will have no problems producing original content, and you'll stop worrying about accidental plagiarism.

These simple guidelines might help you:

  • If you're writing for yourself, you can do anything you want.
  • If you're writing for other people like friends or an informal workshop, be honest about re-using other people's materials, and explain how you're using it.
  • If you're writing for school or publication:
    • Write only original content.
    • Avoid plagiarizing by not copying other people's words.
    • Avoid copyright infringement by not copying other people's story ideas and characters.

If your fear of plagiarism is holding you back, you can find and use free plagiarism checkers online.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    It sounds like the OP is concerned about accidentally copying ideas, not words. Are there online plagiarism checkers that check for that? – MegaWidget Jun 8 at 8:21
  • 23
    @MegaWidget: Nobody owns ideas. It's all been done before, and will all be done again. – Kevin Jun 8 at 8:58
  • 3
    @Kevin In practical terms, for most writers, accidentally copying ideas is not a problem. But copying stories and characters CAN get you into legal hot water. Spielberg and Dreamworks settled a $10 million lawsuit because the movie Amistad too closely resembled the work of B. Chase-Riboud. There are lawsuits over the grumpy cat character and Netflix is fighting the US Gov't for control of "Space Force." If a person here asks us "Is it okay to write a graphic novel about a yellow sponge boy who lives in the sea," I'd recommend trying something else. – rolfedh Jun 8 at 10:29
  • 5
    @rolfedh: That's fair, but if you want to have e.g. an elderly man who has great magical power and dies 2/3 of the way through the story, you're not ripping off all of [King Arthur, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc.] at once. – Kevin Jun 8 at 16:23
  • 5
    There's a somewhat cute saying "Taking from one source is plagiarism; from two sources is research". Aspects of your work also exist in multiple unrelated works can be regarded as common tropes. If your work is close enough to work X to be derived from that, it doesn't rip off unrelated work Y; if it's close enough to Y to be derived from that, it doesn't rip off unrelated work X. If it's close enough to both to have been derived from either, then it doesn't rip off either. – supercat Jun 8 at 16:26
11

You are allowed to reuse ideas, but you are not allowed to reuse exact characters, names, or blocks of text.

Let's take The Lord of the Rings as an example. You're not allowed to use the character Gandalf, but you can certainly use a wizardly mentor figure. You can't use Frodo or Sauron, but if you want to have a peace-loving hobbit go on a quest to destroy the evil dark lord by throwing a magic ring into a volcano, you can do that. You might be thought derivative, but you're not guilty of plagiarism.

(You'd probably want to avoid the word "hobbit" in your work. This term was created by Tolkien, and may or may not have become sufficiently general over time, but it would probably take a court case to decide for certain. When Dungeons & Dragons adapted much of Tolkien's world, they changed the name of their hobbit race to 'halfling' for legal reasons. But words like 'elf' and 'dwarf' were perfectly fine to keep, because they weren't Tolkien originals.)

I like using The Lord of the Rings as an example for these types of questions, because there's a very successful series whose first book, The Sword of Shannara, basically ripped off the plot and characters of The Lord of the Rings wholesale, and doing so was perfectly legal. Terribly derivative, in my opinion, and not really a very good book; but it achieved a significant measure of commercial success nonetheless.

In practice, you don't need to worry about legal issues just because you "cannot stop feeling that [you] have read that before somewhere else" provided that you don't literally use the same names or characters. Seriously, if you're worried, go track down a copy of The Sword of Shannara (your local library probably has a copy) to get an idea of just how far you can push the envelope without any legal ramifications whatsoever.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    See also, opening of Book 1 of Wheel of Time. Inhabitants of peaceful farming village must leave to seek destiny pursued by demonic servants of a dark lord aided by a king in exile with a special sword and a wizard. – Harabeck Jun 8 at 19:44
  • See also, Book 1 of Belgariad. Inhabitant of peaceful farm must leave to seek destiny, aided by a wizard, pursued by servant of a dark god. Later, a king in exile and a special sword also feature. – AakashM Jun 9 at 10:33
  • The hero has a short name and lives in a quiet remote place. An old mentor figure with a white beard and magical capabilities approaches him, and so the hero finds out he is in possession of something which can defeat the big evil. The hero gets a sword which emits a blue glow, meets a lovable rogue in an inn, then joins a movement composed of many races, while the minions of the villain are cloned and all wear face-obscuring masks. They even have a warrior sidekick who is very hairy and often a comic relief. The mentor seems to get killed early, but later returns in a different form. (cont) – vsz Jun 9 at 15:06
  • ... A small, deformed, very old and swamp-dwelling creature will also appear in the story, who seems funny at the beginning, but later will have a very important role. There will also be someone who seems to betray the heroes but we later find out he wasn't really bad after all. The base of the villain is too strong to be defeated directly by a huge army, but a small squad can slip through and deliver a thing which causes the evil to be immediately vanquished jut moments before he could wipe out the main forces of the good guys. Question: am I talking about the Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars? – vsz Jun 9 at 15:06
  • I'd have to disagree that you can't reuse names. You would probably get in trouble for reusing names for characters that are similar, but if you were writing a story about a family that loved LoTR and all the kids were named after the characters, with it being a completely different plot line, you'd probably be fine. The only caveat to that is if there was some sort of legal protection for a name used in the referenced story. Doing a small bit of research, Tolkien mostly used existing names, rather than making them up himself, so anything preexisting the books wouldn't be protected. – computercarguy Jun 9 at 15:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.