Many, many years ago, when I was a young writer who was just beginning to grasp the importance of things like “letter shapes” and had a vague understanding that spelling might be important in other people being able to read what I’d written (especially since I lacked the skill to remember and translate my earliest works from “toddler-scribbling” into “American English,” thus depriving the world of many epic sagas involving me, my little brother, our dog, and the various and sundry monsters who inhabited our backyard), I was big on what we now call “the remix culture” and I, somewhat intuitively, knew not to claim someone else’s story as my own because I didn’t like it when my brother tried to say that a story I’d made up and told him was his idea.
Now, one would think that if a girl of seven can intuit that claiming someone else’s words/story for your own is wrong, then college students and adults would have a much better grasp on the concept of plagiarism (h/t Mad Genius Club). Apparently, it seems, I was a bit precocious in my ethics by figuring out that repeating (and claiming to have “made up”) something like The Last Unicorn was wrong but that making up a different story using the same characters was okay so long as I asked permission (which makes me wonder what Nintendo thought of Nine Year Old Me’s letter asking if they would mind if I wrote a play for the kids in my neighborhood based on The Legend of Zelda that would neatly tie together the first three games — The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link, and A Link to the Past. Cut me some slack. I didn’t understand the difference between commercial and non-commercial use prior to puberty. I should at least get credit for having a vague understanding of copyright rules back then, shouldn’t I?)
To continue; as I got older, I continued to write for things other than school assignments. A few of my short stories were completely original. A lot were based on things my friends and I did but with the names and the setting changed (mostly to protect the guilty because none of us wanted to get busted for going to the Bat Cave* after having been told not to). And many were remixes or “in addition to” stories that took the characters and settings of another story and used them to tell a new story. By the time I was in high school, I was a fairly prolific fanfic author when it came to The Legend of Zelda, Star Trek, Star Wars, Dragonlance, and The Wheel of Time. I was also a burgeoning fantasy writer working on my first novel (which needs to be completely rewritten before I let anyone see it), a multitude of short stories, and several RPG adventures/campaigns for AD&D (2nd Edition).
Back then, I generally had an “extra” notebook I carried around with me that I worked on when I was finished with whatever we were doing in class. This notebook would have notes on adventures I was writing, fanfics, some of my original stuff, my attempts at poetry and epics, and also poems I was trying to memorize. Once, I left this notebook in my English class and my teacher thumbed through it to figure out whose it was so she could return it. She came upon a poem that I had half-written in there and tracked me down to ask me to finish it. The poem was not one I had created — it was one I was trying to memorize and came from the Dragonlance short story Hunting Destiny. I made sure that she understood that because she was talking about having that poem published once I finished it.
It makes me sad to realize that, these days, many students would claim the work as their own for the accolades they could receive (at least until it was revealed they were lying). It also makes me sad to realize that far too many of them don’t understand the difference between remixing and plagiarism. I can sympathize with those who read something and mistakenly paraphrase it without proper attribution (I did this myself a few times and was always embarrassed and quickly corrected it once it was pointed out to me) but I have no such sympathy for people who blatantly rip-off (sometimes word for word) another author and then try to pass that work off as their own after making only a few modifications to try to file the serial numbers off, as it were. I have actually caught a few people ripping off some of my old short stories and trying to claim them as their own for school assignments (and those are always fun emails to get from teachers) which is why I took them down from my website years ago.
However, I don’t mind when people remix my stuff. I’ve had a few emails with short stories set in the Lanarian universe. I’m flattered by those even though I won’t read them because I don’t want to be accused of ripping them off later.
Remixing is fine, guys. And yes, “real” writers do occasionally remix to one degree or another. Some of us even dabble in the occasional fanfic (I’ve done so with Doctor Who). Many of us fantasy writers actually got our start as fanfic writers (though that’s not what we knew to call it) in our early days. For me, my progression went from writing fanfics set in established universes to taking elements of those universes and tinkering with them to try to build a new universe to eventually developing my own universes. And, I’ve read some damned fine fanfics that beat the living tar out of some of the “official” novels (especially when it comes to TV shows, films, or video games). But every fanfic that takes place in someone else’s universe comes with a disclaimer giving credit to the original source. Even many remixes that pass muster as “original works” and not “derivatives” come with an acknowledgement of influences.
We authors love to give credit to the authors and works that inspired and influenced our own writing. Just as musicians will credit other acts for inspiring them to get into music or for inspiring a particular song, we give credit to the authors who came before us and inspired and influenced us. We know that “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) So, we give credit. And if you want to be respected as an author, you’ll need to give credit, too. That doesn’t mean citing every sentence you write. It doesn’t mean sending out a ream of letters before you publish something. It means being willing (and even proud) to say “this story was inspired by X” or “my writing is influenced by Y.” It does not mean taking what X or Y has written, changing a few words, adding a few scenes, and then slapping your name on it and calling it a “remix” when you get busted.
That’s enough for now. As you can tell, this is one of my hot-button issues. 🙂
*The Bat Cave wasn’t anything cool like from Batman. It was a long storm drain pipe that ran under a road. There were bats living in there which is why we called it “the bat cave.”