I have a friend who has a preternatural talent for clever
turns of phrase and pithy remarks. Spend any amount of time in his company and
bon mots go off like cluster bombs. I’m constantly telling him, “I’m going
to steal that one.” And he just brushes it off – yeah, sure, feel free.
I have stolen a
few of his best and included them in fictional dialogue of my own, but not
before Googling the phrase, just in case he picked it up from someone else.
think we all pick up on clever remarks, and those of us who write are likely to
recycle them in the mouths of our characters. But a quick Google check might
reveal a phrase’s origin, or more importantly, whether it as fresh and original
as you thought. You don’t want to use it after it has become a meme or cliché. What’s
clever today has a briefer shelf life due to social media.
It might also keep you ought of trouble; what if it’s a
quote from a copyrighted work? There’s fair use, and then there’s being fair
and giving credit.
I think, though, stealing
lines is fairly common among writers. It may even be the sincerest form of
flattery, or homage. I think it’s the same as, for instance, using a locale
that figures prominently in the work of an author you admire. Or even borrowing
a minor character who inhabits that locale. Of course, you might want to do the
courtesy of giving the other author a heads up. The few times other writers
have asked me if they could borrow a
character my response was always, “Wow, sure.” It was fascinating reading
my own characters as interpreted by someone else. Truly, it can open your eyes
to another facet of a character you thought you knew inside-out … I mean, you
Outright plagiarism has surfaced in the news recently.
Taking someone’s unique creation and passing it off as one’s own is the
ultimate mortal sin among artists. The majority of such claims seem to arise
out of the music industry. The latest, Led Zeppelin’s exoneration of charges it
plagiarized it’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven.”
You have to wonder, though, with only so many notes at
one’s disposal, and with all the music already created by our species over
thousands of years, how anyone comes up with a distinct melody. Haven’t you
ever begun humming a tune and seamlessly segue into another tune with a similar
melody? And yet, we recognize each as a distinct song.
It’s a bit more difficult, I think, to plagiarize a known
written work, or a speech, for that matter. Changing a few words just doesn’t
do the trick. If the current political season has taught us anything, it’s just
plain stupid to try that.
Unless it’s a blatant rip-off, like lifting Michelle
Obama’s words wholesale, I tend to cut the accused offender a bit of slack
because of something that happened to me.
While writing a story that came to be called “What
Was Lost” – featured within “Cream” an amazing anthology of
stories written by members of the Erotica Readers and Writers Association and
edited by Lisabet Sarai – I took a break to watch a war drama, “The Lost
Well, the movie ended in the wee hours, so I hit the
sack. The next day I finished my story in time to post it to the ERWA critique
Among the responses I got was from a friend and an extraordinary
writer of erotica, Helena Settimana: “I bet you watched ‘Lost Battalion’ last
Huh? How’d she know that? Then she quoted a line I used
in the story. Think of what happened next as an epiphany delivered with a kick
in the ass. I had had the line in my head and it fit perfectly into the mouth
of my main character. The fact that I had, quite without intention, stolen a
line from the movie frankly scared me.
Nothing of the sort has happened since, but it does give
one pause, and perhaps a bit of empathy for the random artist who used a string
of notes, or a series of words in a particular order that turned out to be part
of someone’s else’s work.
They used to say, put a keyboard in front of a chimpanzee
and give him enough time, he’ll eventually bang out “War and Peace.”
I doubt either the chimp or its observers would live that long. But the human
brain insists on putting things in order as it recycles information it receives
Maybe whenever you come up with a great line, you should
try saying, “Gee, I wish I’d written that.” You know, just to reboot
your brain’s quality control.