Thoughts on Convergence and Plagiarism

Hello all.

It’s been just over 2 months since I’ve posted here.  No real reason why yea or nay.  Don’t have enough interesting to say to put it here daily, and in the writing time I have, I’d rather spend it on fiction than blogging.  But, when I do have something to say, I’ll be here.

I want to talk today a little bit about the differences between similar ideas, and out and out plagiarism.

I’m sure you’ve all heard periodically of some person coming out of the woodwork in the wake of some sweepingly popular novel, and claiming that the author stole their idea.  The two that most readily come to mind have to do with Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code.  In both cases, authors of other works found similarities between their own works, and those that came out later and were far more successful.  And the similarities, to the injured authors at least, were numerous, uncanny, and suspicious.

But, as Craig Mazin on the Scriptnotes podcast so often puts it, you can’t trademark an idea.  Whether J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown read the novels of the offended authors and incorporated ideas from those works into their own isn’t the point.  The point is, was their own work (novel) a product of their work (effort)?  And in both cases, the answer is an unequivocal yes.  So, in those cases, since Rowling and Brown contributed their own words, imagination, and effort, regardless of whether or not they were inspired-or set upon a given path-by another’s works, their work was their own.  The didn’t copy passages, phrases, or characters.

No plagiarism occurred.    No matter how many owls or uses of the word ‘muggle’ appear.

These are examples of convergence.  Not plagiarism.  Two independent individuals had similar (even if only glancingly so) ideas, and in following where those ideas lead, came up with something ringing of familiarity to the other.

There was always been a part of me that wondered about the motives of people who brought up these kinds of complaints or lawsuits.  Were they just people out to tap a rich vein in any way they could?  Were they truly aggrieved?  Or were they just people with rotten luck, doing their best to turn the ideas in their heads into published works, and getting close, but not close enough, to the ultimate dream of almost any author?

But now I find myself in a distressingly similar situation.  Now, I’m not claiming anyone has plagiarized me.  How could they, when I have not published anything?  And there is no one out there publishing my unpublished works as their own.  I want to make that clear.

But I have come across an amazing instance of convergence, and the sheer level of eeriness involved has set me to reeling.

I have mentioned here in the blog before that I have been writing in my spare time somewhere in the vicinity of twenty years.  In that time, I have pretty thoroughly outlined at least two different novels, with everything from main characters fully developed, to a strong sense of how the worlds of the novels differ from our own.  (Both are set in the future of our world, one about 20 years ahead, one a few centuries so)  I’d even written the first act (about 7 or 8 chapters) of each.  These drafts are terrible, a few years old, and in sore need of redoing.  I have shown them to a few friends, but less than a dozen people all told, and none of them professional fiction authors.

One of the stories in particular is a near future sci-fi medical thriller about trying to save the human race from a killer virus.  That in and of itself has been done at least dozens of times, I’m sure.  There’s nothing from that one sentence that could possible set my draft apart multitudes of other works.

That said, I recently checked a book out of the library.  I had read a trilogy about a serial killer from this author previously, and really enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try out some of his other works.  And it’s a near future sci-fi medical thriller about trying to save the human race from a killer virus.  OK, great.  It might be nice to get a feel for how someone else treated the same subject, gain some insight or perspective.  Maybe see an example of what not to do, or tropes I want to avoid.

But then the similarities started getting more specific, more uncanny, more unnerving.

At this point, even though there is no similarity in the main characters, or the main conflict of the novel, or even the POV choice between this published novel and my outlined and unfinished draft, the world-building between the two is so similar, so specific, so exact in their convergence, that should I ever try to publish my own work, the comparisons will be immediate and clear.

Now, I;m not trying to compare myself to Rowling or Brown.  I’m not saying that once I write and publish this, it’ll be a worldwide hit and the author of this other book will come suing me looking for recompense.  I should be so lucky.  But it means I am aware of the similarities.

I have three choices now.  1 – Continue with my proposed novel as is, trusting that the similarities I am so worried about will fade into the background as the differences-which account for the vast majority of plot, character, and structure-prove these to be independent works.  2 – Administer a dose of caution now, and change the most pernicious of the similarities-those that are specific, too close to be considered coincidence, and ultimately irrelevant to the greater work.  Or 3 – scrap this novel as a lost cause, because it will never be different enough, no matter how different.

What am I to do?

Well, in all honesty – this entire discussion is premature.  Let me finish some more short stories and a novel or two beside this one, and I’ll get back to you.  Until then, my honest opinion is that option 1 is by far the only one worth discussing.  We’ll see.

I only bring it up here and now as a way of venting my stress at seeing so much of my own imagination put onto the page by someone else’s hand.  In the grand scheme of things, this matters not a whit.  I’m just freaking out over things out of my control, as usual.

Here I go,

Matt

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About Matthew Shean

Matthew Shean is the author of several forthcoming novels and myriad short stories. He received his Ph.D. from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York, NY, and spent 20 years as a research scientist throughout the northeastern United States. He now lives in Long Island (against his will), with his loving family and disdainful cats.
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