I was trolling the Internet the other day when I came across a question from someone who wanted to know whether or not he could write a sequel to an existing film if he changed all the names and places used in the film. Interesting question. Here's my response:
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Could you? Sure. If you change the names and places and don't use any dialogue or other material from the film word-for-word, you're creating a new work of art. It may be derivative, but then again, all new creations are derivative of one thing or another. Remember the phrase, There's nothing new under the sun? It's a memorable euphemism because it's true. Story ideas can't be copyrighted; names can't be copyrighted; descriptions and settings can't be copyrighted; other elements within common usage can't be copyrighted, all for obvious reasons. Just because you pick up a story at a point in time where the film leaves off, you can't be found legally guilty of plagiarism or copying something (a story) that doesn't actually exist yet (the sequel you're writing). Remember: Stories can't be copyrighted. Plots can't be copyrighted. Only the word-for-word representations of them (the verbatim manner in which the writer chooses to express them) can be copyrighted.
Now, with that said, "could you" write a sequel novel to a film is a lot different from "should you" write a sequel novel to a film, if you know what I mean. As another respondent pointed out, film companies, particularly major ones, have deep pockets. They can enjoy increased profitability from the publicity of a copyright-infringement action against you, even if they fail to prevail in a court of law. In other words, even if they lose, they win.
On the other hand, faced with an injunction and court order to appear, you will need to hire an attorney, which could get very costly in the short run. Even if the company is amenable to your making a cash settlement out of court in exchange for them dropping legal action against you, you'll have to hire an attorney to make sure everything is legally binding from a contractual standpoint. And, you'll still be enjoined or prohibited from publishing all your hard work in the end or forced to remove it from publication if it already exists.
If you do go to court and prevail, you're going to need to expend a lot of time and money to get from Point A to Point B, not to mention enduring the frustration of dealing with a legal system that, despite the nobility of phrases such as "innocent until proven guilty," can be anything but fair. While the publicity for the production company may be beneficial to its bottom line, it's not likely to do you as a writer much good--today, tomorrow, and possibly for the rest of your professional life.
By the way, the answer you received from another respondent to the effect that you have already admitted your guilt simply by asking a question on Quora is ridiculous. Your guilt or innocence has nothing to do with your culpability for merely asking a question. You could inquire about how to poison someone, but that doesn't make you guilty of murder should someone you know end up being poisoned!
So, in the end, you proceed at your own risk. Should you feel the desire to proceed on legally solid ground, you should contact an attorney specializing in intellectual rights and copyright law. And that ain't me! Just FYI.
In the meantime ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack - Start a paid newsletter (http://substack.com/).