No man is an Island, ………….

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, you’ll see that if you head a couple of posts back, about te dividing line between copying and inspiration. This crystalised for me this week when I started rereading a book. I won’t name it, but I remember that, when I read it the first time, I was struck with the resemblance a major portion of the setting had to something I had read years before.

That may or may not have been inadvertent,. The author claims it was definitely based on the other work, but it had been inadvertent, and it was possible, but rereading it got me thinking. What is the dividing line between inspiration and theft? Is the Law being used to restrict use of works far beyond the original intention.

An analogy.

Making dinner. I had leftover tagliatelle. I had the notion of doing a Tagliatelle Salsicca. Now, I’m sure it’s a standard recipe somewhere in Italy, I’ve no doubt seen a recipe someplace, but I’ve only ever had it in DiMaggio’s in Shawlands. Salsicca has a tomato based sauce, and we’ve had to many tomato and meat meals this last week.

So, I cooked the sausages, with mushrooms, garlic, onions and a leftover half of a green pepper, finely chopped, but I covered it in a pepper sauce, not a tomato one.

So, I was inspired by a product from another, is it a derivative work, when the end product has a different flavour, even if most of the ingredients were the same?

Famously there are only supposed to be a limited number of story plots in the world, the flash the author puts on them, the details and the story telling make the difference, so any one story can resemble another, but where does the boundary between similar and rip-off lie.

A couple of decades ago, a famous author got into trouble when he published a set of short stories, of which the headline one had a twist they’d read in some short stories they had judged. The reply was that “this was the author’s version”.

I wrote a short story in June. It’s my story, but I had been describing the L Sprague de Camp story “The Hardwood Pile” to my wife, and that set me onto the path of my story. it is different, and not just because mine lacks the easy humour and engaging writing of L Sprague de Camp, the events, result and participants are different, but it was inspired by, no two ways about it.

Am I a shameless rip off artist? I would say not, not that time anyway, the famous author had a tougher job justifying their story.

Role-playing games. It’s long established that ideas are not able to be afforded the restriction of copy-right, only the implementation. That is why RPGs after TSR’s original D&D exist without paying royalties to Hasbro. There can be arguments made about “derived works” if the product was too similar to the original, but the successors rarely went down the same path as D&D so escaped.

Even D&D, it could be argued, was not born out of the ether with total originality. Personalities in imaginary lands had existed in wargaming previous to D&D, as had fantasy wargaming, so there were roots there.never mind kids just saying “I’m Tarzan, you three are poachers. Let’s play”

Ideas can be patented. Wizards of the Cost patented turning a card sideways to show it had been used. Now personally I think that is a silly patent, but at least it illustrates the point. Without that, I could publish a game that turned a card sideways, as long as I used original text to describe that.

With a patent, I have to licence it from, now, Hasbro, and pay a royalty. This brings us closer to my worry. There is a media giant that made a lot of money reselling public domain and out of copyright stories. It then used its influence to have the length of copyright extended to protect its works far beyond sanity.

None of us exist in a vacuum, bereft of other cultural influences. To quite Phil Kay “No man is an island, unless his name is Madagascar”. Funny joke. We are all connected, but even that joke depends on a familiarity with Milton’s “no man is an island”, even if you don’t know who wrote it or in what context. That media giant is in the US. The US exports its rules on patents and copyrights around the world via WTO negotiations, so the chilling effect on our future culture is being chilled.

The Law is being used to pull the ladder up behind those who have made a success out of shared ideas and culture. Only officially approved and licenced works will be able to get wide distribution, and we will all be poorer for it.

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