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I'm an author and arts administrator living in New England with my family and pugs. I'm also a caffeine addict and voracious reader. My latest middle grade fantasy novel, SHADOW WEAVER, is available now from Sourcebooks Jabberwocky!

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NEWSFLASH: You Cannot Copyright Ideas

When I was in grad school, one of the required courses for Arts Administration was “Art Law.”  We spent nearly half the semester discussing copyright law and, boy, is it ever tricky!

The one lesson they drilled into us was this: copyright is for tangible things.

If you can put it into physical form, it can (usually) be copyrighted.  By their very nature, ideas, thoughts, concepts, etc. are not physical.

For example: Take two painters.  One is on a beach in Malibu, the other in Hawaii.  Both are painting the Pacific Ocean.  The artists have never met and have no knowledge of what the other is doing.  Not surprisingly, they both choose to paint the ocean blue.

Now, even if the oceans in the paintings are very similar, with waves breaking in the same places, and the very same shade of blue, there could be no copyright infringement. Even if they were on opposite ends of the beach in Hawaii.

Why? Because you can’t copyright the ocean or the color blue.

They’re concepts, themes, what-have-you—not original copyrightable material.

I’m pointing this out because of the recent lawsuit claiming Stephenie Meyer copied portions of a relatively unknown teen author and used them in her book Breaking Dawn.

There’s an array of reasons why the case won’t hold water (not the least of which is that Ms. Meyer wrote and filed for the copyright of Forever Dawn, the original sequel to Twilight, before Ms. Unknown even finished her book), but I’d like to take a moment and focus on the simple fact that proving copyright infringement is REALLY REALLY HARD.  Especially when it comes to books because they deal with ideas.  The only physical thing about them is the bindings and the actual words.

So, unless the passages are literal copies, the likelihood of winning a lawsuit is very slim.  The burden of proof falls on the plaintiff, not the defendant, and s/he will need to prove ownership, substantial similarity and access.

Assuming Ms. Unknown does indeed own the work in question, here’s my dissection of her case (you can read the whole thing here if you like):

1) Substantial Similarities

First, I have to say this is not the only novel to feature weddings, sex, nightmares, women seduced by vampires, people being turned into vampires, or evil babies. Not by a long shot.  Those are plot devices and pretty common ones at that, particularly in recent years.

The only major difference is that Stephenie Meyer is famous. And oozing with cash.

If you look at the text comparison, sure, there’s some similarities but it’s obvious nothing was copied word for word.  And really, how many ways do you think novice authors are going to describe a wedding? Or sex on the beach? Or their version of Rosemary’s baby?

VERDICT: Ms. Unknown’s idea of similar just isn’t substantial enough.

2) Access

Just because something is out there on the internet does not prove the defendant saw it. There’s information about underwater welding on the internet, but that doesn’t mean I’ve read it. However, if cookies from your site are still sitting on their hard drive, now that would be proof.

As mentioned above, though Breaking Dawn didn’t come out until 2008, the basis for it (which just happens to include ALL the supposed similarities) was written several years before.  The funny thing is, Ms. Unknown didn’t file her copyright application until AFTER Breaking Dawn was published.  Hmmm, that’s not suspicious at all . . .

VERDICT: Supposed evidence makes it look like Ms. Unknown infringed on Ms. Meyers copyright!

Clearly, this is a publicity stunt. Ms. Unknown wants to entice Ms. Meyer’s crossover audience to read her book.  However, I suspect she’s gravely underestimated that audience.  Twilight fans tend to be die-hard believers and Ms. Meyer is their Queen Bee—an attack on her is only going to get them to lift their torches and pitchforks, not their wallets.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see in the headlines:

Unknown Author Clubbed to Death by Mob of Rabid Teens All Wielding the 800-page Special Edition of Breaking Dawn!

MY PREDICTION: According to her website, Ms. Unknown is an aspiring author/model/actress/singer and the book in question is part of a trilogy.

My money is on Ms. Unknown’s Book Two—coming soon to a store near you!

2 Responses to “NEWSFLASH: You Cannot Copyright Ideas”

  1. […] This post was Twitted by MarcyKate […]

  2. Yolla says:

    This was beautifully written and presented. I love the rabid fan-girl comment at the end too…good laugh..XD

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