I’m upset. I was working on my novel for over six years but just saw that another book is coming out with my same idea.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence. I posted a short story about it years ago. Maybe they saw it and took it? But I’m mad that this happened and I’m mad at myself for not working faster on my book. I could have finished it sooner but life would keep getting in the way and then the pandemic slowed me down more.
Now my original book idea is someone else’s and it makes me feel like I wasted six years of my life. Now if I publish my book ever people will think I copied this other book. What do I do? I want to give up but I also don’t want to lose all my work. I also don’t want to start a new book if this happens again. I don’t work fast. How do I keep people from using my ideas even as an accident?
Feeling Ripped Off
Dear Feeling Ripped Off,
I feel this very, very hard for reasons I'll soon mention. But first, a story.
Once upon a time, two different entities had a strikingly similar story concept: Representing the Jewish community tongue-in-cheek as talking cartoon mice while cats represented anti-Semites, all to portray the historic struggles of the Jewish community.
One of these creations was the hit animated film “An American Tail” by director Don Bluth and executive producer Steven Spielberg. The other was the graphic novel MAUS: A SURVIVOR’S TALE by Art Spiegelman, which would later win a Pulitzer Prize. (The first graphic novel to ever do so.) Both came out the same year, only three months apart.
But that’s not the whole story. (Heh.) While both debuted in 1986, only the first volume of MAUS was released, subtitled MY FATHER BLEEDS HISTORY. The second volume, AND HERE MY TROUBLES BEGAN, wouldn’t release until 1991. This is because Spiegelman heard about Spielberg’s upcoming movie and—understandably—panicked. With graphic novels receiving little recognition and Spiegelman being of Garbage Pail Kids fame at the time, he was already worried his graphic novel about his father’s experiences with the Holocaust wouldn’t be taken seriously. And now, with such similar anthropomorphic concepts underway and Spielberg being such a household name, Spiegelman worried his graphic novel would get buried; or, at the very least, unfairly compared to the film.
Instead of releasing the novel as one complete piece as originally planned, Spiegelman spliced it in half and raced to finish the first volume for publication. Spiegelman further wondered if Bluth and Spielberg had stolen his idea. After all, he’d been releasing MAUS a chapter as a time as an insert in his own co-edited comics magazine, Raw, for the past few years. (You can read more about all of this in METAMAUS by Art Spiegelman and MASTERS OF THE COMIC BOOK UNIVERSE REVEALED! by Arie Kaplan.)
Due to his haste, Spiegelman managed to release Volume 1 of MAUS three months before “An American Tail” hit theaters. Did getting out there ahead of Spielberg bolster his success? Probably not. Both works are wonderful and neither could eclipse the other if it tried. They’re also both, despite their coincidentally similar concepts, wildly different.
What we end up having here, my friend, is not a concern of someone else—phenomenologically or otherwise—using our ideas, but rather something harder to admit: The belief that we’re not good enough.
We get so caught up in the concept of an idea that we forget about the expression of that idea. The latter is considerably more important. How many times have we heard about an awesome story premise, only to experience disappointment because the execution was lacking? How many times have we thought a premise sounded mediocre, only to be amazed at how engaging the story ended up being?
When we don’t think we can execute the idea well (i.e. if we think our writing sucks), we believe the idea itself is all we have going for us. It’s not unlike the lateral sniping and competitiveness I’ve sometimes witnessed among marginalized writers, especially budding ones. If we, for example, think being trans is the selling point for our work, we instantly become threatened if another trans writer comes to town; even if their work is vastly different from our own.
I know this sucks to hear, but ideas are free game. But not only is this beneficial (see below), the good news is no two writers can ever write the exact same book, even if they use the exact same elements. I know it sounds Pollyanna, but it’s because no two people are truly alike. No matter what we write about, we’re ultimately writing from our own unique experiences and backgrounds, and therefore we create unique works. I’ve seen this happen in real time in my classes. Sometimes I give a highly specific prompt to students and have them write a couple of paragraphs to then read out loud. What results are several flash fiction pieces that are all alike and yet wildly different. It’s amazing what people come up with and how they interpret things.
And there really is a phenomenon of writers writing similar things at the same time by pure coincidence. I’ve seen it in workshops, I’ve seen it during submission windows for literary journals, it’s even happened between me and some of my closest friends. And nine times out of ten, it results in some enjoyable surprise, laughter, and a closer connection with a given peer. But that said, sometimes ideas really are “stolen”; as in, somebody heard someone else’s story premise and liked it so much that they decided to write their own story with that premise.
This happened to me. And yeah, it’s not the greatest feeling in the world. Despite the whole “imitation is the highest form of flattery” thing, it caused me a lot of frustration and anxiety in the past, especially when said individuals got published while I didn’t or otherwise advanced in ways that I desperately wanted to myself.
There were also times where, by pure coincidence, someone completely unrelated to me put work out into the world that held the same premise/s as my own still-unpublished stuff. That also didn’t feel good, especially in the publication rejection pattern of “nobody will be interested in this premise” > “oh look, this premise came out elsewhere and is a big hit” > “well now it’s been done, better luck next time.”
This anxiety particularly spikes for us in the marginalized community, where it’s especially common for mainstream publishers, gatekeepers, and tastemakers to pit us against one another like some sort of artistic Hunger Games: there can only be one. This is frustrating in itself, but especially when we see the pattern of mainstream production eager for “more of the same.” Plainly, if something sold well, proving to indeed be profitable, publishers and other entities will seek out even more of it. What was once unusual and risky has turned into a safe bet. But when it comes to marginalized people writing marginalized work, the barriers are still in place because industries keep them there. I have many thoughts on that, but I’ll just say that I’m optimistic things will slowly change for the better. We’re already seeing it with the deluge of marginalized stories coming from the YA category over the past decade. And while there’s still a lot of work to be done, this shows that the needle is, in fact, possible to move.
However, this is all to say that it doesn’t matter in what way someone’s book idea comes about in another person’s work—whether coincidentally or intentionally. Unless they lifted your work word-for-word, it’s not plagiarism. Even if they deliberately used your idea, it might be “stealing,” but it’s not stealing. By and large, it’s legal. In response to how to keep people from using your story ideas, my friend, you can’t. But if we stop and really look at the situation, we wouldn’t want to.
Imagine if Walt Disney had copyrighted the idea of a talking mouse. Countless works would never be made or released to the public, including MAUS and “An American Tail.” Not only would that be a tragedy in itself, but the copyrighting of ideas could so easily slip into monopolies on storytelling.
There’s also the question of at what point an idea or premise is, in fact, stolen. For example, there’s been plenty of controversy since the Disney release of “The Lion King” in 1994. It’s eerily similar to the 1965-1967 anime “Kimba the White Lion” by Mushi Production, which was based off the 1950-1954 manga by Osamu Tezuka. The premise of the show has many similarities, including, but not limited to, lion cub Kimba losing both his parents and must grow up to be king of the jungle with the help of such animal sidekicks as a female cub love interest, a wise baboon, and a wisecracking tropical bird. Along the way, Kimba tangles with nemesis Claw, a dark-colored lion with a black mane, a scar running down his eye, and armed with cackling hyena henchmen. And yet, “The Lion King” and “Kimba” are still notably different from one another.
In an odd coincidence, Osamu Tezuka was heavily inspired by Disney during his formative years to the point that he was called “the Walt Disney of Japan.” Mushi Production never took Disney to court over the Kimba situation and Tezuka Production said that Tezuka would have been honored that his work had influenced the company. (Although Disney still denies any influence by “Kimba.”)
But at the same time, nobody expects, say, the descendants of Shakespeare to sue Disney for the use of the premise of Hamlet in “The Lion King” (which Disney has since said was a source of inspiration). Is it simply because Shakespeare’s works are public domain? Is it because he doesn’t, in fact, have any direct descendants in these modern times? The use of an idea is the use of an idea is the use of an idea…right?
Where exactly is the line? A talking mouse? A talking mouse who wears red pants? A talking mouse who wears red pants, has a high-pitched voice, and has dogs (incomprehensibly) as both best friends and pets? A talking mouse with all these attributes and conveniently named “Mickey”? Is it a problem only when profit is involved? Why would someone else making money off our idea bother us more than someone using our idea at all?
As such, does it matter that Art Spiegelman’s MAUS was already being published in Raw a chapter at a time, years before “An American Tail” would debut? Does it matter that representing the Jewish community as mice (in a harmless, literary way) had already been done by many other artists, including Franz Kafka all the way back in 1924 in his final short story, “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk”? Questions abound.
Because if we want to get technical, this conundrum also means that fanfiction is a form of literary theft. A handful of published authors do see it this way and resent the fanfiction made of their work, but fanfiction writers see it in a completely different light. They are, in fact, deliberately taking someone else’s ideas, premises, and/or characters—and sometimes the entire stories within themselves—but expressing them in new ways. Is the difference that they're not making money off this work? Then what about, say, the current trend of publishing marginalized retellings of classics, from which modern-day authors and publishers profit?
And one more example, since it's so meta that I can't help myself. When YELLOWFACE by R. F. Kuang came out earlier this year (2023), focused on a writer who deliberately steals another writer's manuscript and calls it their own, some readers accused Kuang of stealing the plot from THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2021). Korelitz was, in turn, accused of stealing the plot of THE PLOT from such works as A LADDER TO THE SKY by John Boyne (August 2018) and MY PURPLE SCENTED NOVEL by Ian McEwan (June 2018). Did Boyne and McEwan, then, steal from each other? Did they steal from the movie "Un Homme Idéal" (2015), directed and co-written by Yann Gozlan? Did Gozlan steal from THE TRUTH AND OTHER LIES by Sascha Arango (2014)? Did Arango steal from the movie "World's Greatest Dad" (2009), written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait? Did Bobcat steal from ABOUT THE AUTHOR by John Colapinto (2002)? Did Colapinto steal from the movie "Murder of Crows" (1998), written and directed by Rowdy Herrington?
I'll stop there, but my point is that I don't care how many plots about literary theft have come before YELLOWFACE. Because, to me, YELLOWFACE is fucking fantastic. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy its execution, but all of these similar-but-not-really plots shows the seemingly infinite possibilities of execution itself. Their tones run from grisly to quirky, their topics from racial appropriation to single parenthood, their genres from thriller to dark comedy. To compare them to one another is just plain silly, and especially fails to take away the most important fact: Every single one of these titles has fans. Sometimes those fans overlap, sometimes not. But all that comes down to is personal taste. Anybody who believes otherwise might be a little too obsessed with their own navel.
(Random fun fact: When THE PLOT came out, readers also accused Korelitz of stealing the idea from such sources as "an old episode of 'Law & Order,'" "season four of 'Riverdale,'" and "the movie 'Yesterday' about the Beatles." So basically all of this is anarchy.)
For writers, anxiety about someone publishing their idea before them comes down to concerns about scarcity in the publishing world. And while Big Content and other entities may try to convince us that there isn’t enough room at the table, it’s only because they make it so. Art is art. It is not a consumer good. And while we unfortunately have to play the game of capitalism if we ever hope to make a living off our art--or rather, finding a livable wage somewhere that allows us to continue creating our art--that’s a subject to tackle for another day.
I get that many of us are likely just trying to protect our favorite books and authors, but when we engage in spectator behavior about who owns an idea, all we're doing is playing into the hands of this scarcity mentality and doubling down on the pitch-only approach to plot. Not only are we encouraging peak capitalism in the publishing world--in addition to perpetuating scare tactics and an unnecessary amount of anxiety and depression for writers such as our friend here who wrote in with this question--but we're creating a frustrating amount of white noise for writers who really have had their works plagiarized.
I’ve gone on again. To sum up, my friend, it’s turtles all the way down. Sometimes it’s complete coincidence, sometimes it’s deliberate, and sometimes we’re inspired by something without even realizing it, subconsciously pulling pieces of it into our own work and molding it into our own thing. And while knowledge of this reality may not leave us with the best feeling—believe me, I get it, I really do—our healthiest path forward is to see it more as a positive than a negative. No art is created in a vacuum. The things we do, say, create, and distribute really do impact and influence other people like ripples in a pond. Artists are a collective. And while we should certainly strive to keep our eyes on our own paper, we can’t help but be inspired by one another. Art is, after all, inspiration put into form.
Keep going with your work, my friend. Just like I keep going with mine. Just because your novel's idea is out there as somebody else's doesn't mean your book is a wash. Both can exist at the same time and be loved.
Art in the age of peak capitalism is a tough, thankless, and disheartening road. The industry makes us feel worthless to cut down on costs, critics pick us apart for likes, and readers compare us to one another as if that helps anybody do anything. But the writers who make it are the ones who don’t give up. I’d love it if you kept going.