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I was pondering a lot on the issue with copyrights on plots. Is having an identical plot infringing someone else's copyrighted work?

I am fully aware that the character names are copyrighted and cannot be copied. I am also fully aware that the representation of the idea (the words themselves, in substantial amounts) are copyrighted.

But what I'm curious about is the play, the plot points, the storyline, in other words, the idea behind which the words convey.

Let's assume I hold the copyrights of the Harry Potter books.

  1. If someone took all the pages of a Harry Potter book and rewrote each of them in his own words (when I say in his own words, I mean no simple task of rewriting. Paragraphs are removed, changed, added, dialogues changed, added, removed, even the chapters are different, the entire expression is different beyond recognition), plus he had renamed all the characters (e.g. Harry Potter to Gary Potter and so on). Although the entire expression of the idea is beyond different, the entire idea is identical. could I charge him for infringement by the copyright law? Could he publish his plagiarised work and claim copyrights for it?

  2. I see that the Harry Potter movies do not use words copyrighted by the Harry Potter book (spoken words, or written words which are shown on screen). Does it mean that if the movie were to rename all its characters (while having exactly the same plot), it is fully original by the copyright law, and the publishers (or movie makers etc) do not have to pay a single cent to me (the copyright holder of the Harry Potter books)?

Now let's take another example, this time on the web.

  1. If someone rewrote every single post in my blog in his own words and publish it, could I charge him for infringement by the copyright law? Could he publish his plagiarised work and claim copyrights for it?

  2. If someone rewrote all the content of my website (keep in mind that I'm not talking about programming code/design of the webpage) in his own words and publish it, could I charge him for infringement by the copyright law? Could he publish his plagiarised work and claim copyrights for it?

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Whats funny is that in Russian, Harry Potter is Garry Potter –  crasic Sep 13 '11 at 18:21
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2 Answers 2

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Technically you cannot copyright a plot. However, you can copyright a particular instance of that plot as long as it is not based on an older work in the public domain.

In your Harry Potter example if every chapter had exactly the same incidents and more or less the same dialogue with slightly altered character names you would probably lose in court trying to insist that yours is not just a rip-off. It's an area where the discretion of the court would come into play and you would probably be on the losing end of that discretion.

If, on the other hand, you wrote a story about a guy called Peter Thompson who, it turned out, was the son of the Greek god Mercury and went to "hero school" where it turned out there was some underlying plot to overthrow Zeus and incite war on Olympus and only Peter had the power to stop the plot with help from his two friends, a male and a female, on a jaunty magic schoolboy type quest JK Rowling's lawyers couldn't touch you.

Unfortunately Rick Riordan's lawyers would nail you to the wall for ripping off his "Percy Jackson" series.

However JK Rowling can't sue Riordan for his thinly disguised Potter rip-off. He's made Jackson sufficiently different that he's safe from the courts of civil law. The court of popular opinion, however, has branded him an unoriginal hack and his stories have not impinged on the public consciousness to anywhere near the degree of the Harry Potter series.

So, basically it's a matter of degree, and there are more ways for your work to be a failure than to be deemed infringing intellectual property in a court of law. On the other hand Riordan's ploy did get him a publisher... make of that what you will.

EDIT:

On your second point. In the electronic arena it matters whether the blog or website presented a work of fiction in which case, see above, or if what it produced was considered "news". In the latter case, well, just look at daily newspapers, they are all in the business of writing up the same source material in their own words. They call it bias. So if what you have on your website is "news" or "information" then it can be copied by someone else in their own words without issue. See also textbooks for examples of the same information rendered by different people in different words. If the work is creative, imaginative and "original" (such that it is not based on information in the public domain) then the rules apply as above.

Finally, to clarify one point I've now made twice. If you decide to write your own version of Snow White someone else may also write theirs with the same sequence of events and even the same character names as long as they don't steal any original elements that you added to the story (like Red Riding Hood's utility belt and addition of her sidekick "Sparrow" the girl wonder). Even then it gets a bit complicated and nothing is certain no matter what Disney's legal team will tell you.

And while I was writing that paragraph I remembered one other thing. Technically if what you have written is deemed "satire" in some areas that gives it special protection under "freedom of speech" a court ruling once set a precedent that zombies were a satirical device therefore adding zombies to anything instantly protects it as satire. This is, of course, a broad interpretation but it does serve as an example that all I have written is suspect and you never can be sure.

SECOND EDIT: And on your point about a movie that was very similar but sufficiently different not to occasion a lawsuit see National Treasure. The story goes that Disney wanted to buy the rights to The Da Vinci Code and lost the bid, so they made National Treasure. As you may note National Treasure is so sufficiently different from TDVC that it exists now as a thing in its own right having features not shared by the original work (e.g. IMO "fun"). Therein lies the problem in such a ploy. People who love "Lord of the Rings" want to see "Lord of the Rings" they don't want to see "Halfling and Elfboy's Bogus Questathon", so essentially by making your product sufficiently different you have also ensured it will have its own audience leaving the audience for the original pristine and unsullied.

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Yes I was talking about having identical incidents (identical ideas) but the dialogues (words) would all be different. Please keep in mind that I'm using an example to demonstrate my point, and I'm not actually trying to plagiarise someone else's work. –  Pacerier Sep 13 '11 at 12:25
    
Even Percy Jackson was careful not to have a "Voldemort" plotline. It's all too easy to get too close for comfort. –  One Monkey Sep 13 '11 at 12:26
    
When The Da Vinci Code came out, a dozen books came out within months (& still do so) about a Professor/Scientist/Archaeologist solving a mystery hundreds year old, while also solving a more recent crime like murder. I ignored them all, so One Monkeys point about readers avoiding you are true. What I mean is- you maybe seen as a copy cat, and many people will say, let's just read the original. That to me is a bigger threat than any legal one. –  Shantnu Tiwari Sep 13 '11 at 12:46
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@Shan:Which is ironic because Dan Brown, famously, is an awful writer. The idea of the copycats in that case was "It's like The Da Vinci Code but better written!" I haven't actually had much of an opportunity to catch up on the truth of this but I have a couple I want to try out for research on my shelf. –  One Monkey Sep 13 '11 at 12:53
    
@Shan I do see where you are coming from, but this question specifically tackles the legality issue and ignores the "lose face" issue. –  Pacerier Sep 13 '11 at 13:52
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CAVEAT: I am not a lawyer.

At the level you're describing, yes, this is copyright infringement.

Basically, if it's easy to demonstrate that your work is "substantially similar" to another piece, to which you had access, then infringement can be proved. Working with similar themes, plot elements, and tropes generally doesn't constitute such extreme similarity, but if you're talking about rewriting a piece at a paragraph-by-paragraph level, merely re-wording without changing content or theme, then that's an easy case against you.

Note that there are plenty of retellings which don't constitute infringement - but they need to add or change something substantial. West Side Story 'wouldn't infringe on Romeo and Juliet (even if that illustrious work weren't long out of copyright) because it's a retelling in an entirely different era and setting, and these elements change the story. Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody doesn't infringe on Harry Potter because it's a parody. Wicked doesn't infringe on Wizard of Oz because it retells the story from a vastly different POV, and is a riff on the Oz mythos. Also, "substantial similarity" can be vague and tough to prove, so even fairly blatant rip-offs can avoid infringement.

But a simple line-by-line rewriting - the same elements, characters and events in the same configuration - would be shot down pretty easily.

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Take a look at the edit. To be clear, in my example it is not simply line-by-line rewriting. Paragraphs are removed.. paragraphs are added.. the paragraphs are so different no one could find a similar paragraph at all. Even the chapters are different. The entire expression is different beyond recognition. But the entire idea is the same. This is the level I'm describing, the corner-case I'm talking about. –  Pacerier Sep 13 '11 at 12:43
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My answer stands. If the book is clearly identifiable and identical, even if rewritten in your own words, that's infringement. If your Book I involves a kid finding out he's a wizard on his birthday, from a giant with a flying motorcycle, and he goes on to discover a hidden talent for a magic game involving chasing balls from flying broomsticks, and he retrieves a life-giving artifact from a mirror because he wants the artifact and not its powers - then no matter how you phrase it, that's undeniable substantial similarity and you can be sued for infringement. –  Standback Sep 13 '11 at 13:00
    
West Side Story doesn't infringe on Romeo and Juliet not because of it being a retelling, but because there's simply no copyright on R&J anymore. Death plus 70? Well, the Bard has been dead a few more years than that. :D –  Jürgen A. Erhard Sep 16 '11 at 22:34
    
And "easy case"... no. Never easy. As you contradict yourself in the second paragraph: "vague and tough to prove". Exactly. It's only easy if you actually rip of parts verbatim: same phrasing, same dialogue (word-for-word), etc. The bigger the distance from that, the harder it gets. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Sep 16 '11 at 22:36
    
@Jurgen: clarified the Romeo and Juliet point. Regarding the larger picture, OP is explicitly asking about a very transparently lift of the entire plot down to all its details; he's asking if something eminently, obviously recognizable as a full plot copy is legal. Ease is obviously relative, but this is the clearest application of the "substantial similarity" clause imaginable. –  Standback Sep 17 '11 at 20:55
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