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About Writing Right: The Blog


That's what someone asked on a forum the other day. Luckily for that person, I happened to read some of the answers others provided him. Here's what I wrote:

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First off, yes, it's okay from a copyright standpoint to write a scene from a movie using different characters and, of course, your own wording. That's called rewriting or paraphrasing, and it's perfectly legal. As for the other answers you've received to your question, I once gave a lecture at Dixie State University and knew several students and teachers there, and while I don't want to cast aspersions, I wouldn't put a whole lot of stock in advice about copyright law that someone who "studied Psychology and Creative Writing" there just gave you. Ditto for anyone who says that the "scene, as well as the movie, is the intellectual property of the writers."




So, if I describe a scene of Tara from Gone with the Wind in my own words in my next book (that's the question here, remember?) and I rename it Terrance, I'm going to Copyright Hell? Is that the way things work in your world? Uh-uh.Not in mine. In my world, scenes can't be copyrighted. Only the exact phrasing one uses to describe it, assuming it's not a generic descriptrion already in wide use throughout the lexicon. I suggest you study the U.S. copyright laws before leading people down that "yellow brick road" (which, by the way, is not a copyrighted "scene" and can be used anywhere by anyone at anytime, although there may be other reasons than copyright infringement for not doing so—read on). The reason you can use it is that, if copyright extended to scenes, we'd no longer be able to describe a setting as an "idyllic wooded grove," "a babbling brook," or a "rusting old farmhouse with a dilapidated white picket fence." Get it? Yeah, I didn't think so.


Anyway, do yourself a favor, and spend a few days reading through the information here: U.S. Copyright Office. I guarantee you won't take the time or effort to do so, but I also guarantee that, even though it's easier to give wrong information off the top of your head than it is to learn the facts before you steer people astray, you would benefit greatly from the experience.


Now, with that said, even if material can't be copyrighted (persons' names, scenes, geographical names, lists, general physical descriptions, titles, etc.), that doesn't mean it's not protected. Take, for example, the name, Buick. It's a name, so it can't be copyrighted, but it can be trademarked (and it is). So, even though you may be clear to use it from a copyright infringement point of view, you may still run afoul of the dreaded U.S. Trademark Cops. As a rule, if it's a specific commercial product that's making money for its owners, I'd think twice about using its proprietary word or words without permission in a commercially viable vehicle, such as a book, film, or short story.


So, how can you be sure you're not violating someone's intellectual property rights? In this way: Don't use any potentially protected verbiage word for word. If you want to reference that yellow brick road, call it the "sprawling yellow pathway" or the "yellow cobblestone walk." I know, I know, the song won't have the same effect, but, hey, who said life was easy? Remember, if you don't use the exact copyright-protected phrase or trademarked word, you can't get in trouble. Paraphrase. Paraphrase.


Are we clear? I hope this helps. A lot more so than the "advice" from some "Psychology and Creative Writing" student at Dixie State University in St. George who has nothing better to do than to lead people astray. Sad.




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D. J. Herda is author of the new eBook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.

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