There's Nothing New Under the Sun

Monday, January 26, 2015

My husband had a knee replaced on January 15, and my temporary role as nursemaid is cutting into my writing time. So this week I am reprinting a post I did for the Hoosier Ink blog on  June 27, 2012.
There’s Nothing New Under the Sun
The wind was picking up. Watching the approaching gale from her seat in the cockpit, Anne was grateful that Carousel had reached shelter before the storm hit. But as the sailboat’s bare mast bobbed and weaved with the others in the harbor, Anne prayed for the sailors who were still out on Lake Michigan.
Notice the opening sentence, which I borrowed from Chi Libris. Chi Libris is a group of well-known Christian novelists that include Angela Hunt and James Scott Bell. The group decided to publish a book of short stories with five shared elements: the same opening sentence, mistaken identity, pursuit at a noted landmark, an unusual form of transportation, and the same last line (“So that’s exactly what she did.”). The plots vary widely, however. In fact, the point of their collection, What the Wind Picked Up, is to show that the same basic idea can generate many diverse stories.
That’s one reason you can’t copyright ideas. The idea itself doesn’t make the story. It’s what you do with the idea that counts.
But there’s an even more important reason why you can’t copyright ideas. The founding fathers inluded copyright provisions in the Constitution to encourage creative works, not to inhibit them. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” If ideas could be copyrighted, there would be nothing left to write about.
Here’s one idea that is frequently found in literature. Two young people fall in love but are kept apart by their feuding families, and the consequences are tragic.
You could call Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet a case of mistaken identity in 16th Century Verona, Italy. The two protagonists fell in love before discovering who they had fallen in love with.
Move the setting to New York City in the 1950s, and you have West Side Story.
Then there is the apparently true story of the Hatfields and the McCoys in the Appalachian Mountains during the late 1800s. Their feud escalated after Johnse Hatfield began courting Roseanne McCoy, and Johnse’s family had to rescue him from the angry McCoy men. Did Johnse escape on a horse or use some other form of transportation that we would consider unusual today?
Or travel back to even earlier times. Legend tells of two Native American lovers from rival tribes. When their chiefs forbade their marriage, the lovers swore that if they couldn’t live together they would die together. Fleeing from their families, they embraced each other and jumped off the landmark now known as Lover’s Leap in Illinois’ Starved Rock State Park.
All of these stories use the same basic plot idea, and one (West Side Story) is still under copyright.
Now think of all the contemporary authors who have used that same plot idea. If you could copyright an idea, those stories wouldn’t exist.
Let’s look at another example.
Miss Read (pen name for Dora Saint) has written multiple books about everyday village life in England. While these books tend to have a main character, they center around an ensemble cast of ordinary, and mostly likeable, village residents.
Does that remind you of a series by a popular American authoress?
When I read Jan Karon’s first Mitford book, I immediately thought of Miss Read and her Fairacre/Thrush Green books. It isn’t that the writing style is similar—it isn’t—or that the authors tell the same stories—they don’t. But their books have a common theme.
I don’t know if Jan Karon read Miss Read’s books before writing her own. For the sake of my point, however, let’s assume she did. And let’s also assume Jan Karon knew she could use the same idea without violating copyright law.
So that’s exactly what she did.

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