Thursday, September 07, 2006

Steal this idea

If the idea behind this post appeals to you, feel free to use it or tell your friends about it. But don't use the "CTL-C, CTL-V discount" and represent that you wrote the post: that's thievery, if it goes beyond fair use standards.

John Sutherland, from whom I borrow the inspiration for this post and to whom I give credit (as well as more readers--click here to read his essay), points out that you can copyright novels but not ideas.
This means that plot lines, scenarios, character types, gimmicks are all there for the taking. A new idea in fiction, if it catches on, will quickly be snapped up by other writers. Take, for example, the alternative, or parallel, universe gimmick often used in science fiction. The pioneer is generally taken to be Ward Moore, whose Bring the Jubilee (1953) fantasises an America in which the south won the civil war, existing in some neighbouring universe alongside ours in which, of course, the north won. This was picked up by Philip K Dick in one of the greatest of science-fiction novels, The Man in the High Castle (1962), in which in one universe Japan, and in another the Allies, won the war - characters slip between the two. Since then there have been any number of creative plunderings of Moore's alternative universe gimmick: Len Deighton's SS-GB (1978) and Robert Harris's Fatherland (1992), in both of which Germany won the second world war, are two bestselling examples.
It's not always as simple as that, of course.
In 2001, the estate of Margaret Mitchell moved to have a burlesque of Gone with the Wind suppressed. Called The Wind Done Gone, Alice Randall's spoof retold Gone with the Wind from a slave's viewpoint. Randall, herself an African American, was sardonically reminding readers that Mitchell's novel (unlike the film, which MGM carefully sanitised) has admiring sections on the Ku Klux Klan (with whom Rhett rides) and diatribes against post-bellum "uppity darkies".... The Wind Done Gone was duly injuncted, and the injunction lifted after the novel's publishers, Houghton Mifflin, made an out-of-court settlement with the Mitchell estate.
There is more of interest in Sutherland's article (which is excerpted from his new book, How to Read a Novel), including a brief treatment of the uses of anonymity and pseudonymity in book marketing.

--Marshal Zeringue