Saturday, June 27, 2009

“There is Nothing New Under the Sun”

Over 397,000 works are published annually. Creating something non-litigiously new can be a real problem.

Yes, plagiarism does happen and it shouldn’t. But when you consider over 397,000 works are published every year in the English-speaking world alone (Wikipedia’s stats for UK, USA and Canada), it’s inevitable that ideas are going to be repeated.

The title quote is Ecclesiastes 1:9, attributed to King Solomon: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (NIV version).

Obviously, if there’s been a verbatim lifting of text without documentation, that’s one thing. There have been some very public furors when authors are caught at this. Roots, that towering work by Alex Haley was found to have paragraphs lifted from a work he had used in his research: The African, by Harold Courlander. Another accused of fraud is famed historian Stephen Ambrose. I found quite a list of examples in a New York Books article by feature writer David Edelstein (May 6, 2006).

But when one is accused of similarities, I have to wonder. Famous on this score was Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan whose work How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was yanked from the shelves because of similarities to other authors, most notably Megan McCafferty. Now, I really have no idea just how similar. None of the articles I found expounded in detail. Obviously it was similar enough for the publisher to pull something like 55,000 copies out of distribution which had to be a significant dollar loss for them.

Face it. If you ever become rich and famous, someone’s going to sue you. How hard could it be for someone to get hold of CopyGuard (academic plagiarism-detection software engineered by iParadigms for Turnitin of Oakland, CA); screen your work, and find a way to score a few bucks in court? Granted, famous folks are more apt to have total strangers yell: “Hey! He hit on me!” rather than: “Hey! He stole my work!” but the latter plainly stands a better chance of being provable.

So the Big Problem is this: how do you create something non-litigiously new considering the overwhelming amount of work being produced?

You can’t. King Solomon said so.

Maybe it’s like this: every thought in the universe wanders through the cosmos on a cyclical basis infecting mortals at random. That’s why, when you’re so sure you’ve come up with something either new or distantly retro, it suddenly pops up everywhere. Everybody’s doing a story, a movie or a lunchbox on that very theme. Multiple minds being infected by the currently migrating thought. Think a judge would buy that?

Given this cosmic premise, your worst enemy is the length of the process. It can be years between inception and publication. Even if you’re the first to “catch” a thought, others with more speed, clout or sheer dumb luck will get out there first.

When Ammanon finally stopped being a daydream and came tumbling out on paper – well, the computer screen – it was 2003. It was a fictional place, a fictional race, but it had an ancient Greco-Roman feel to it that hadn’t been done since Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics. No one was doing anything remotely similar.

Then suddenly it was everywhere. It started, near as I can figure, with “Gladiator”. Then came “Troy”, “Alexander”, “Pompeii”, “300”, etc. PBS started running “I, Claudius”, “Rome”; and there was a remake of “Spartacus” as a TV movie. The History Channel reacted with factual documentaries for all of the above. It was saturation plus.

Nevertheless I plugged on. By 2006 I’d found an agent, a publisher, and begun the lengthy process of editing and rewrites. Then I found a bigger problem than genre: names for fantasy places and people. Oh, it’s easy enough to come up with the words. But you can bet you’re not the first to invent them.

“Ammanon” for instance, passed muster both on Google and in the big, fat dictionary I keep by my side. But the first time I looked up my book on Amazon.com guess what! The entry just under mine was the very intriguing Within a Sheltering Darkness – The Log of the Ammanon Deloré by Alan Havorka. OMG. Who could’ve thought up a name like that besides me?

Then I went to register a domain name for my website. My web designer, Al Miller of Kwikit, and I decided on a simple, straight forward ammanon.com. But between telling me the name was available and getting it registered - wham! It got snapped up by a genetic testing/genealogical group. OMG. Someone else thought up that word, too! And none of us could’ve possibly copied from the other. It was original with all of us. You’ve got to believe that, Your Honor!

Character names, while not as dangerous as title names, can get sticky, too. In Ammanon, Book Five: The Souls of Many I dreamed up a nice, strong name for a boy warrior: “Pardis”. My dictionary wasn’t using it for anything so I thought it was OK. But guess what. “Pardis” is a girl’s name in India. For that matter, so is “Partha” the name I gave a country in my story. Sigh. I changed the boy’s name, which doesn’t sound at all masculine to me anymore. But the kingdom of Partha, may all those Indian ladies forgive me, remains.

There are many more examples from my own experience. For instance, I named the emperor’s magnificent, legendary steed “Maxor”. Great, huh? Some months later I discovered that Maxor was the name of my mother-in-law’s mail order pharmacy.

And so it goes.

Another problem is the fact that we writers generally weave our worlds in relative isolation. It never occurs to us that someone else is acting on the same thoughts until we emerge years later.

The bottom line is simply this: there is nothing new under the sun. The universe is just too big a place. Of course outright plagiarism will ever be unfair and unacceptable. But for heaven’s sake let’s be reasonable about coincidence!

3 comments:

doughditties said...

Great post, and so true! One of my favorite Thoreau quotes, "All news is but gossip." It's all happened before . . .

In the 1970's, I envisioned a 2-piece bathing suit. The bra top had long strands of fringe hanging all the way around, like native American leatherwork. Sure enough, a few months later it was on the front cover of "Sports Illustrated."

Your Ammanon fantasy is like nothing I've imagined. So it's fine with me if you just stay in your relative isolation and keep writing!

Tia Nevitt said...

http://www.ammanon.com/ is now available.

What happened is it got snapped up by a domain squatter. They have programs that sniff around the internet sites of big domain registrars. When someone tests a domain, they attempt to grab it. If they're successful, they hold onto it for a few days, to see what kind of traffic it gets. If it gets no traffic, they let it go after 3 days for a full refund. It's a bad flaw in the domain registry system. They really ought to encrypt domain name test requests.

They way to combat this is be ready to buy immediately when you attempt to buy your next domain name.

Mary Fagan said...

To Doughditties: Dang! Wish I'd remembered the Thoreau quote! Thanks for bringing it up. And I still like the bathing suit idea. Hope you're proud of yourself for coming up with it first!

To Tia: Thanks for clueing me in on domain squatters! Another lesson learned.