Currently, I’m reading a memoir, “How to Make Gravy” by the wonderful and incomparable Paul Kelly. Kelly is an Australian singer-songwriter, much beloved by Aussies but not so well known elsewhere. He’s been around since the late 70s, and has a huge repertoire of work. The memoir is fascinating, well written and gives a great insight on Kelly’s career, but that’s not the point of this post.
In the last couple of weeks, I discovered a story of mine was copied without my knowledge and posted on a site, “credited” to me (“I’m just posting this for my friend, Cheyenne Blue”). I’m still working on getting that removed.
However, this isn’t the first time it’s happened. Another original story of mine was posted on a bulletin board “to share” (I got that removed by emailing the site owner). Another story was stolen, the names of the characters were changed and it was posted on a fanfiction site with no acknowledgement to me whatsoever. That’s gone too.
Paul Kelly writes in his memoir that he has borrowed things in his songwriting. Titles. Phrases. Chord sequences and riffs. A phrase a friend once said about Anastasia always changing her mind. The song title “Don’t start me talking” was taken from a song by the same name of Sonny Boy Williamson (1955), which also inspired Elvis Costello to use it as the first line in “Oliver’s Army”.
I have reused snippets. Sometimes consciously, sometimes I’ve only realized it after the event. Very occasionally sentences, more often just a pairing of words or a fragment. Most often from my own writing (there’s one particularly sentence, I realize to my shame, I’ve used three times in three different stories).
I’ve seen it in other writers too. Other stories, that I’ve thought “That reminds me of so-n-so’s story”. Once I came across a story where the sex scene was a word for word copy of the sex scene in another story – by the same writer, so it was her own writing she was reusing, but it was a couple of pages long, not a couple of paragraphs. Curiouser and curiouser!
There are some quotes that are so instantly famous that the reader recognizes them as being from something else, even if they are unaware of the source. They have become like a cliché – a sequence of words the writer didn’t invent, but uses anyway. Did you recognize “Curiouser and curiouser” as being from “Alice in Wonderland:? Chances are you realized I didn’t come up with the expression, even if you didn’t remember its source.
There are legal definitions for acceptable use of others’ works, which govern quoting from, critiquing of, parody, public domain and a myriad of other reproductions. Clearly, in my examples above, the reposting of my stories without permission is a clear breach of copyright. As titles cannot be copyrighted, Paul Kelly’s and Elvis Costello’s reuse of the title “Don’t Start Me Talking” is obviously fine. But what about those conscious or unconscious borrowings of fragments, sentences, twinned words?
To me, much of this comes under the heading “lazy writing”. It’s bloody lazy of me to use the same sentence to describe a beating heart in three separate stories. We all have our comfort language we like to use (ask my betas how often I use sticky/stickiness, for example); that’s a well-worn groove that it’s too easy to fall into. Lazy. However, is it lazy of me when I read a book and a pair of words jump out at me – maybe a perfect description, maybe I just like the sound of them together- but for whatever reason the words get stored away in my head to reappear later, almost certainly in a different context from the original use.
I don’t think I’m being lazy, when I remember a phrase someone has said and I file it away for later use. A friend once was recounting a story which included the phrase “My ex was up a ladder in Lekemba” and I immediately thought, what a fantastic title for a story that would make. It’s jotted down in a file I have for such snippets – potential titles, opening lines, phrases, concepts, ideas. If you ever stumble across a story with that title, there’s a good chance I’ll have written it! Lekemba, btw, is a suburb of Sydney.
Writers (and songwriters, and other creative beings) are largely filters. They take something they’ve seen, heard, experienced, imagined, read, watched, dreamed, fantasized, and they process it through their head until it comes out in their own words. Even though I’ve never murdered someone, been pregnant, traveled in space or done many of the things I’ve written about in my erotica, I’ve experienced those things via other mediums (or simply in my head) sufficiently that I’m able to filter those experiences and come up with something of my own. It depends on how wide the mesh of the filter is as to what gets through.
So, dear friends, what is acceptable? Reusing pairs of words, sentences, paragraphs? From your own or other people’s work? Pinching a title? What about plots? Dialog? A sex scene? What is acceptable, in your view? And if it’s acceptable in the public eye, do you consider it acceptable from the point of view of your own integrity?
Don’t start me talking, I could talk all night.