No, this is not a post about the Nic Pizzolatto/Thomas Ligotti ordeal that everyone was talking about yesterday. Sorry. Instead, this is about the fact that I read about twenty long threads on that and repeatedly came across folks who claimed no one owns ideas. In a way, they’re right, but they’re also horribly wrong, and that worries me. You see, ideas are out there, floating in the ether since the beginning of time. They’re as hard to pin down and control as signifiers or coked up butterflies, but once those ideas take shape, mix with other ideas, and solidify in a previously unknown work of art, that particular combination belongs to someone.
Let me give you an example. I love Carlton Mellick’s The Haunted Vagina. I have to pitch my next book to Eraserhead Press, so I could send them a pitch for a novel in which a guy goes on a sexual spelunking trip and ends up trapped in his wife’s vagina, which just happens to be haunted by ghosts and populated by dancing skeletons. It’s not exactly the same as The Haunted Vagina (go to YouTube and look for Vanilla Ice’s ludicrous ding ding ding explanation to see what “not exactly the same” really means), but surely EHP would politely tell me to fuck off because they’ve already published that book. Carlton doesn’t own any of the words he used in that book and he doesn’t own the idea of skeletons, hauntings, being trapped or vaginas, but the exact combination he used in his book is all his, and anyone who thinks the whole concept in that unique incarnation is up for grabs is an idiot.
I spent two years in law school before I decided I’d much rather be a happy, broke journalist/teacher/writer than a depressed lawyer. During that time, my plan was to become a guy who helped artists get some moolah when some unoriginal hack stole their shit. That didn’t happen, but I read enough to learn a thing or two about the pros and cons of having laws against plagiarism. Plagiarism, for those who commented on every thread out there without bothering to look it up, is when someone takes the writings or literary ideas of someone else and publishes/sells/somehow makes money off of them while claiming them as his or her own writing. For those of you who want to argue the small but very important points, using brief quotes and citing is okay, but the amount used and the purpose of the usage will always be taken into consideration before fair use can successfully be brought in as a valid defense. In other words, literary ideas can be owned, and those who steal them should pay the price.
Here are a few simple examples of how this works:
- Creating a mythos full of unknown evil beings with the ability to bring forth the destruction of humanity, not to mention the sanity of any individual who’s unlucky enough to encounter them, is a really cool thing. However, if you call it the Kthulhu Mythos and "create" an aquatic monster/deity called Dag-gon, you’re an asshole and deserve to be punished.
- Guns, drugs, bad guys, and femme fatales have been used by every crime author out there. However, if your novel is titled The Maltese Bird, deals with a man wrongly accused of murder who’s also trying to help a young woman, and your main character is named Sam Stade, you’re stealing ideas, you douche.
Plagiarism is complicated because of valid things like pastiche, paying homage to someone, and the varying degrees to which certain authors you read in your youth may influence your style and even word selection. Luckily, there are venues to solve this, and they have to do with experts looking at things side by side and deciding if you’re just a bad poet trying too hard to sound like Bukowski or if you’re a thief who paraphrased an entire text in order not to have to come up with something new. However, the important point here is that ideas can be owned. You can’t own killing as an idea, but you can own an idea where a character you created slowly murders another character you created, preferably in a unique fashion and while saying some cool shit you came up with on your own. I know accepting the weird relationship between ideas and ownership is hard, but the relationship is there and it’s an important one, so be aware of it. Okay, you can go back to reading uninformed comments online now. My apologies for the interruption.