May 23

Plagiarism or Inspiration?

On October 2, 1998, the movie Antz was released to great fanfare and critical acclaim. This was Dreamworks’ first animated movie, and they were entering a powerhouse genre, going head-to-head against heavy-hitters Disney and Pixar. Antz was a huge success, making millions for Dreamworks.

Then, on November 25th, only a little over a month later, Pixar’s A Bug’s Life was released.

There was no question someone had copied someone else. The only question was: who had copied whom?

At least this time, there’s an answer.

Turns out, John Lasseter, who was friends with Jeffery Katzenberg at the time, had told Katzenberg all about Bug’s Life on a visit to L.A. in the fall of 1995. In his battle to undercut Disney, which distributes Pixar films (and now owns them), Katzenberg began production on Antz, intentionally planning on getting it into theaters before Bug’s Life.[1]

That sure as heck was copying. But was it also plagiarism? And why am I making that distinction?

Because it appears that while plagiarism is illegal, copying isn’t. The law states that no one can legally protect an idea—only the implementation of an idea. If we apply that law here, then the idea “an ant with individual ideas uses them to save his colony” isn’t protected. And the way that idea is implemented in Antz and Bug’s Life is, indeed, different, so there is no legal problem, and, therefore, no plagiarism.

But the issue at hand is much bigger than this simplistic distinction implies. Legal or not, there is the whiff (and perhaps more than that, a downright stink) of the dishonest in what Dreamworks did. Individual implementation aside, there’s no way to see the two movies without knowing, in our bones, that, indeed, “someone copied someone else.” We sense the moral wrongness of what Katzenberg did, regardless of whether it is legally allowed.

In the writerly world, consider 50 Shades of Grey. This book originated as Twilight fanfic. Indeed, the main characters still retain the exact physical and emotional characteristics of Meyers’s, with the exception that the male protagonist is no longer a vampire. It’s impossible to read the two books without noting the blatant similarities—even, overall, in aspects of their plot arcs.[2]

Fanfic has a long history of drawing its inspiration from existing, copywrited works, and I’m not knocking it in the least. But when it goes on to its own publishing life, something goes creepy-crawly up my spine because of that copywrite on the source material. Again, this doesn’t fit the legal definition of plagiarism. But there’s no denying that something ain’t right there, and the literary world agreed, diving into the ethical considerations of publishing 50 Shades.[3]

But it gets more distressing, and confusing. Because in thinking about the roots of fanfic, I realized the real question in these cases is about much more than copying.

Which brings us to the case we discussed at a writers meeting I attended, where author Kelly Rucker brought a suit against Harlequin, alleging that they stole her idea for a novel. I’m not so interested in the outcome of this case, or even the actual particulars, but instead, in the implications. Because the real question raised by all these examples is: what is the role of inspiration in the creative life? And when I realized that was the actual question, I got nervous about my reactions to both Antz and 50 Shades.

In the case of Kelly Rucker vs. Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. the real accusation is about the source of the inspiration for the Harlequin book. Did Rucker’s book, How to Love a Billionaire, inspire The Proud Wife? In that case, does phrasing the question as “Did A Bug’s Life inspire Antz?” change our feeling about the issue of those movies?

I am a devotee of inspiration. I would wield a sword against the strongest opponent to protect our right to be inspired by others’ ideas. But is inspiration a different animal than plagiarism? Or does the very idea of inspiration contain within it the notion of plagiarism?

Do we feel better if we call it a tribute? This is from the point of view of designers. Very interesting.

Indeed, plagiarism asks real questions about what we are, and are not, allowed to do as artists. If we read a story that inspires us to write (Twilight), are we now, ethically, allowed to make (and publish) of that inspiration whatever we like (50 Shades)? How much must be changed before we can be morally comfortable calling the idea our own? If Katzenberg had changed the characters from ants to water buffaloes, would that have been enough to rid the movie of its suspect morality?

What are the rules? Do we want there to be rules? If we do, how strict do we want them to be?

The law as written and put into practice falls clearly on the side of those who wish to copy—who wish, in what to me feels like the true spirit of the word, to plagiarize—because of the inherent looseness of the idea of “implementation.” Are we happy with the distinction between “idea” and “implementation” if it allows instances like Antz/Bug’s Life and Twilight/50 Shades to happen?

On the other hand, if we eliminate that distinction, if we win cases against the Antz and 50 Shades and Good Wifes of the world, have we now hamstrung ourselves from being able to be “inspired” at all?

I don’t know the answers. I’ve had amazing and valuable conversations with a variety of people about this, some who believe there’s a real problem and some who don’t.  There isn’t a clear resolution. Should there be?



[1] www.businessweek.com/1998/47/b3605013.htm

[2] For a good list of them, see fiftyshadesofplagiarism.blogspot.com

[3] A fabulous one: smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/50-days-of-50-shades