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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. Read More 

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Someone asked me the other day if he'd be stealing from the Terminator books if he wrote about a character with a retractable bayonet in its gauntlet. Oh, yeah. Let me at this one! Here's my response.

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Copyright pertains to specific creative expressions and how they're assembled in a precise arrangement. If, for example, you wrote about a character with a retractable bayonet in its gauntlet and described the scene in your book word-for-word as it's described in the Terminator work, you're committing plagiarism—that is, you're violating copyright by stealing someone else's work. But, if you use a different description than the original (paraphrasing by using a different word order, words with similar meanings to the original words, changing sentence structure), you're not. Regardless of whether or not the bayonet is "logical," as one commentator foolishly advised, it's not infringement. Logic has NOTHING to do with copyright.


Remember: For a writer, WORDS in their specific arrangement in original works are copyright-protected by their creators or assigns from the moment of creation; concepts, gizmos, and gimcracks aren't. And, no, it doesn't matter whether or not the gizmos go back a thousand years into history. Words written in a specific order can be copyrighted; concepts or things can't be. Read More 

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To Create or Appropriate?

Someone asked me the other day if I thouight she could use "short phrases" from another author's work as long as they weren't related to the plot or essential to the author. Now, I had to think about that one for some time before responding (about a second-and-a-half). Here's what I told her.


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Absolutely, you can use short phrases from another author's work. Just remember that, if you do, you should be prepared to go to court because you're going to be sued.


Can you use short phrases with proper acknowledgement without being sued? Possibly, and possibly not. That depends in part upon what your definition of "short phrases" is: You never do define it, which I find interesting. Are these short phrases three pages, three paragraphs, or three words in length? It makes a difference.


Peculiar, too, is your contention that these appropriated phrases are not related to the plot or essential to the author. I'm curious: Upon what do you base those two assumptions? Are you an analytic literary expert? An attorney who specializes in copyright infringement? A justice on the U.S. Supreme Court? A mind reader? Obviously not. If you were, you'd know that neither one of your contentions offers legal atonement for infringement. Read More 

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