The whole Cassie Edwards flap continues to ripple outward, leaving blog posts and long comment threads in its wake. One of the things it has unearthed is a widespread misunderstanding of what plagiarism actually is, leading to some rather eloquent posts on the subtle difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism.
But there is another widespread confusion that also needs to be addressed. It seems that for every person who believes "she did noting wrong", or "she was just lifting non-fictional facts", or "it's romance so it don't really matter. . ." there's someone else who's just as willing to dive overboard and say "hey that (description of a) book looks like (a description of) some other book," and point screaming "PLAGIARIST" like Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Such people don't get the fact that, in fiction at least, there's no ethical problem with taking ideas/plots from prior work and adapting them to your own.
In fact, there'd be a bit of a problem if there was such a restraint as is pointed out rather amusingly on the Smart Bitches' blog:
Or, as Justine Larbalestier pointed out in a follow-up on her blog:
There seems to be some confusion regarding the status of ideas in copyright law. You can’t copyright a plot or an idea. You can only copyright the specific expression of that plot or idea as recorded in some sort of tangible form. Think about the nightmare of attempting to nail down and legislate a plot or idea for a story. How specific would you have to be before you could declare something unique enough to copyright?
“An angst-ridden story about a vampire falling in love with a human.” Dude, if you can copyright that and collect a small fee every time somebody published that story, you could have your own giant pool of gold coins to swim in, Scrooge McDuck-stylee. (Side note: doesn’t that sound like a painful idea to you? Because it always has to me.)
I am so sick of people thinking that retelling a story is plagiarism. If that were so then we would have, at most, ten novels. All books about vampires, zombies, middle-aged English professors are not the same (well, okay, some of them are). It’s not about the story you tell so much as HOW YOU TELL IT. Why is that so difficult to understand?
Georgette Heyer did not plagiarise Jane Austen. David Eddings didn’t plagiarise J. R. R. Tolkien. Walter Mosley didn’t plagiarise Raymond Chandler. I did not plagiarise C. S. Lewis.
The next person who says to me, “Oh my God! Did you see that Certain Writer’s next book is set in a future world where you have to have your skin removed and replaced with carbon when you turn sixteen? That is just like Scott’s Uglies books! He should sue!” That person will get smacked. HARD.
For some reason, a lot of people are tied up with this misunderstanding, to the point that I've seen multiple someones opine that Author A should sue Author B because of some similarity in plot mechanics. ("OMG they both feature red-haired were-weasels in a New-England high school!!!1!) In their view the similarity (usually between two Amazon-style plot synopses) is a BAD THING.
To this I say, "No, it isn't, you twit."
Fiction endlessly recycles plots, characters, tropes and the other structural elements of a story. Fiction is in a constant dialog with itself, and many stories are written in reaction to prior work. My own Emperors of the Twilight is a response of Heinlein's Friday, Dragons of the Cuyahoga was directly inspired by the "Future Boston" portrayed in In the Cube by David Alexander Smith, Raven has Edgar Allan Poe smeared all over it, the situation in Broken Crescent bears a (in this case accidental) significant resemblance to the plot set up in Wizard's Bane by Rick Cook, and a large part of Wolfbreed #1 owes its genesis to an anime series I'm rather fond of.
Those of you who've not gotten the point are going to start getting all Sutherland on me, somehow thinking my history of literary borrowing makes me a hypocrite for jumping all over poor Ms. Edwards. Let me clarify something for you. In fiction. . .
PLAGIARISM IS THE COPYING OF SOMEONE ELSE'S TEXT. T-E-X-T. NOT PLOT, NOT IDEA, NOT SOME CHARACTER'S ÜBER-COOL SUPERPOWER. TEXT! AS IN, THE PLAGIARIST OPENS THE SOURCE AND COPIES THE WORDS THERE! GET IT?