Oct 28, 2008

Borrowing is a Slippery Slope

This has come up as a result of our first online chapter meeting next week. I belonged to a writers' club here in my area that still meets to read and critique each other's work. The writers are quite varied in their venues and the subject of "borrowing" came up once. It's not the ugly practice of plagiarism, which is illegal and generally easy to prove, and where even the best of authors can fall short, i.e., Stephen Ambrose.

Our club decided early on that "borrowing" was a very non-specific term. In the case of non-fiction, it was easy to spot and easy to fix. Just mention it in a footnote or a reference list. In fiction, it's almost impossible to track down.

For example, I write in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. You could say it's all borrowing because the formula is essentially the same. Worlds peopled by many different creatures, bad guy, good guy, mentor, duel, moral crisis, followed by victory. Joseph Campbell wrote the bible on how to write fantasy in particular and heavily influenced the well-known Star Wars series which in turn was startling close to the Lens series, and we won't even make a comparison to Lord of the Rings trilogy.

My point and that of my club is how on earth can you even know you're borrowing, especially in fiction. Most of my genre actively borrows from one another posed as what we call a nod. For example, the latest Stargate Atlantis "nodded" to a Star Trek episode by calling a coalition a sort of federation then placed the characters on trial for their deeds in the Pegasus galaxy very much akin to the Star Trek story where Captain Picard was put on trial for the sins of mankind. Unless you were well familiar with both series, wouldn't you assume Atlantis plagiarised?

Did Stargate borrow? You betcha. Did the "nod" to Star Trek "cover" the borrowing? Well, all I can say is that in this genre, yes, it's considered very cool. In fact, as readers, we rather enjoy such nods especially when they are very subtle. The Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites writer does this nodding all the time in a very delightful way. Is the "other" source mentioned by name? Rarely, hence the word "nod."

So what about this borrowing? How much is really new under the sun? How can you not be influenced by that you have read when you write? Isn't really a case of just a "new" spin on an old story? What say you all.


  1. That must be the most recent Atlantis episode and, yes, I'd recognize the nod because I also watched TNG. I loved SG-1, but I'm starting to really like Atlantis.

    Perhaps, borrowing means different things to different people and we all have to ask ourselves what it specifically means to us. I'll ponder it.

  2. I made the following comment when this question came up on our CyberScryber internet chapter, and since I'm too lazy to paraphrase myself, I'll just copy my thoughts here, to share with those not in the chapter.

    "Along this subject, while directly quoting from another author (or
    coming too close) is plagiarism, "ideas" themselves are not
    copyrightable. So if we take an "idea" that someone else has, but
    then turn it uniquely into our own story by giving it our own twists,
    etc, that's not plagiarism. Sometimes I read a book that irritates me and think, "Now if I were to tell the story, I'd tell it *this* way". It might start off with a couple of the same concepts, but then I'd twist it all about until it ended up a unique story, not a "copy" of what someone else has written. I think that's legitimate."

    What do the rest of you think?

  3. Interesting. I can see that this is an issue. It seems to me that I remember Nora Roberts getting in trouble a few years ago for "borrowing," but I think hers was actually paragraphs, not plot points.

    So, say you have a character that talks like Yoda on Star Wars. Is that borrowing? Way! So the nod would be saying it's Yoda's brother?


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