Is original writing always better?

Is original writing always better?

Tonight is the Oscars*, and one interesting thing for me is that they split the screenwriting awards into two categories: original and adapted.

Why the difference?

Is it inherently easier to write an adapted screenplay…or perhaps inherently harder? Is one form of writing more “valuable” than the other?

That question pulls together a few threads I’ve been pondering recently.

One was when of my readers and commenters, JJ Hitt, expressed a concern about author John Scalzi having “reworked” earlier books.

Another is that there is a legal action, as reported in this

The Economist article

to establish the legality of authors writing new Sherlock Holmes works without the approval of the Conan Doyle estate.

Then there is the prejudice that some people have about tie-in novels, the art of which is eloquently addressed in this book

Tied In: The Business, History and Craft of Media Tie-In Writing

edited by Lee Goldberg.

All of that brings me to a question: do you think authors should write original things, and if they do, does that make them better than authors who aren’t as original?

I think the knee-jerk reaction from a lot of people will be, “Of course!”

After all, isn’t The Lord of the Rings better than a knock-off?

Most likely…but The Lord of the Rings drew on a lot of other sources (you can get some of them for free at Would LOTR have been better if it wasn’t inspired by the Kalevala and Wagner?

Shakespeare, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark…they all had resonances to other works, and wouldn’t have been the same without that sense.

Now, note that I’m not talking about either plagiarism or copyright infringement here. I’m talking about using other works, often with permission, as a basis for a new work.

We should probably get the definitions of plagiarism and infringement out of the way, so we know what were discussing. I find those two terms commonly confused, although they are quite different.

Copyright infringement is a legal thing. Someone has registered a copyright which gives them certain authorities, and you are infringing on those authorities. In the USA, you can not commit a copyright infringement of Shakespeare’s plays, since they are not under copyright protection any more (they are in what is called “the public domain”…they are owned by the public).

If you were to publish a new book starring  Katniss Everdeen of
Review: The Hunger Games without the permission of the rightsholder, you would be infringing on the copyright. Copyright law includes protection for derivative works, which would include movie and TV adaptations…and new novels. That’s how I understand it, although I’m not a lawyer.

That brings up the idea of fan fiction (fanfic)…people who publish it without permission do so at the risk of legal action of the rightsholder. Lots of it is made available (see, for example, but with certain notable exceptions, there is a risk in doing so.

J.K. Rowling has famously allowed fanfic about Harry Potter

BBC article

within certain guidelines (nothing sexually explicit, for example).

There is a Fair Use doctrine under US copyright law that protects certain uses of copyrighted material without permission (including parodies), but I think people think it allows much more than it does. Just because you aren’t charging for something doesn’t make it exempt from copyright protection, for one thing.

So, copyright infringement falls under legal definitions.

Plagiarism, on the other hand, means that you are claiming that someone else’s work is your own.

That is not, de facto, illegal.

Let’s say that someone sends a Shakespeare sonnet to someone, claiming to have written it as an original love poem. That is plagiarism, but not copyright infringement.

If someone copyrights and illegally distributes copies of, say,

Gone Girl

without permission, but with Gillian Flynn’s name still showing as the author, that is infringement, but not plagiarism.

Something can, of course, be both. When someone else’s work contained my material (beyond Fair Use) without my permission and without crediting me (see Infringement, plagiarism, and Amazon to the rescue), that was both infringement and plagiarism.

With those two out of the way, to you think that writing something original is more creatively valuable than adapting something else?

For example, there will be a

New James Bond novel

written by William Boyd, authorized by the Fleming estate, published in October of this year.

Do you automatically “downgrade” it, because it is based on someone else’s work? Do you think it is easier to do?

I’ve written parodies, and I love to try to write in other people’s styles.

One reason I like that is because it challenges me.

It adds a level of difficulty, as opposed to just writing my own material from scratch.

When I’ve captured the feel of it, and readers think I have, that makes me feel good. 🙂

It’s a bit like the rules in a boardgame…they are what make it interesting.

When we were kids, my family often made up new and more complicated rules. We liked that better. It’s like…if you watched the show Chopped. Chefs open baskets with these really bizarre ingredients, and have to make something good out of them n a very short amount of time. Would it be as fun or as hard if they could use any ingredients they wanted in any way?

I think writing a tie-in novel is both easier in some ways and harder in others.

If you were to write an authorized Star Trek novel, you don’t have to create main characters…if you use Spock, Kirk, and McCoy, it’s already established how they think and  interact  with each other.

That’s easier.

However, if you get that wrong, or some other tiny bit of Star Trek lore wrong, or write something that fans see as “out of character”, you are in big trouble.

That’s harder.

Do I like the idea of true originality? Yes. If you can really do something someone has never done before (good luck with that, by the way), that’s wonderful.

However, I also admire someone who can do something new with an existing work. I think the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie is much better than the original book (and I’m a big Oz book fan). Some of my favorite Oz books were written by Ruth Plumly Thompson who (with permission) carried on after L. Frank Baum.

I think

Forbidden Planet

is a great movie, and is enhanced by being inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

What do you think? Is originality always better and harder? Is a bad original more of an achievement than a good derivative work? Does only originality show true artistry? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

* If you want to see my predictions for the Oscars, and the aggregate predictions of those participating in my annual Bufo’s Oscar Prediction Madness (BOPMadness) competition, see The Measured Circle’s BOPMadness category

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.


9 Responses to “Is original writing always better?”

  1. jjhitt Says:

    I once heard a quote attributed to Robert Heinlein (probably spurious, because I cant find it) that there are only 16 basic plot lines and Shakesphere has already used them all.

  2. jjhitt Says:

    And then there are instances where a variation on a theme takes on a complete and total life of it’s own.

    The entire zombie genre owes as much to Hitchcock’s The Birds as it does to Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. It’s the exact same story, except with different creatures.

  3. Lady Galaxy Says:

    This isn’t totally on topic, but it’s close. [And it won’t hurt my feelings at all if you don’t approve it to be added to the comments section.] How much of an effort does Amazon make to ascertain whether books published through their direct publishing system are not just copied and pasted from assorted websites? I recently purchased a book, and as I was reading, it seemed very familiar. I kept digging through my archives until I discovered that I had the complete content of the book was something I had printed out from a teacher sharing website way back in the year 2000. A few things had been changed and a few typos had been corrected, but it was 99% taken from that website. The original website is no longer online, but I did a web search using one of the typos and quickly found that it was available in many locations. I suppose it’s possible that this is an original work by the author and that a website copied it 13 years ago in which case he needs to know that his “original” work has been “borrowed,” but it think it’s more likely he borrowed it, edited it, and published it using Kindle Direct Publishing. This has happened before with self published cook books, but since you can’t copyright a recipe, only a recipe collection, I just considered myself glad that it was a freebie and deleted it. But this was a book I purchased, and it’s past the return period. I notified Amazon via e-mail about the problem, but I haven’t heard back from them.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      I would assume no effort at all, which I would argue is the appropriate level. 🙂

      The first thing is that copyrights do not need to be registered in the USA (although doing so gives you additional options). A legal rightsholder, submitting through Kindle Direct Publishing, may legitimately have no way to prove copyright.

      They are asked to attest to it, though.

      Given that, what process could Amazon follow to ascertain that something is not infringing?

      Some time back, they started checking to see if a work that was submitted was identical to another work, which is one form of protection, but wouldn’t work in the case you cite.

      Amazon does review the submitted materials, and I would presume that they would catch some things, like the Harry Potter books if they were unauthorized. However, I don’t think they do the kind of search you did with every book…and if they did discover it, as you point out, the publisher could still be the rightsholder (it might, for example, have been pirated for the website).

      Amazon, I think, tends to accept the attestation, and then a rightsholder can protest it…that’s what I did, as I cited in the post you commented.

      Infringement, plagiarism, and Amazon to the rescue

      I also wouldn’t expect Amazon to respond to you. Suppose they conclude you are correct, and tell the publisher to remove the book. The publisher would likely comply, to prevent further action against them. However, if Amazon wrote to you and said the publisher was an infringer, that could get Amazon in trouble…unless they could prove it.

      I love your instinct to prevent infringement, but I think it would be complicated in this case.

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        They did reply, and I was surprised. They say unless the copyright owner contacts them, their policy is to do nothing. They also said I needed to let them know under penalty of perjury if I was the copyright holder, which I made clear in my original letter I was not. They didn’t even offer me a refund on the book. So caveat emptor, and shame on me for not figuring it out before it was too late to return the book.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lady!

        Well, there would be two ways to go. One would be to proactively prove right to publish, which would be complex (back in the days before automatic copyright, it would have been much easier). The other is to let people publish, and then let the authorized copyright holder get it removed.

        The first method would have a hugely chilling effect, especially on independent publishers. The tradpubs can afford to register every copyright…indies often publish books with very little monetary investment.

        The other thing to consider is that someone could make a complaint like yours simply to harm distribution of a book…perhaps for political purposes. It’s somewhat similar to YouTube removing the Kindle Paperwhite ad. If they remove every book every time a single person complains, even when that person doesn’t even state that they have a legally defensible claim to the book, we might see the disappearance of a lot of controversial material.

        As to the refund, I’m not sure on what grounds they would give that to you after the seven days. Remember that no wrongdoing has been proven at this point, legally speaking. The source of the material may be under suspicion, but did the book not perform as expected?

      • Lady Galaxy Says:

        I gave web links to Amazon that contained the majority of the test of the book in my original complaint, but I’ve got to let it go. I have to remember that I retired from teaching, and it’s not my job any more to find people who try to pass off other people’s work as their own. But the “wanna be” writer in me is still angry about it.

        Time to stumble off my soapbox and move on;)

  4. Lady Galaxy Says:

    I hope this is more on topic. I’ve been thinking about your original intent, and I would think it’s probably harder to write an adaptation than an original script. I’m thinking in particular of the movies made from the Harry Potter books. The first few movies kept pretty close to the books, though obviously they couldn’t include everything. However, I was really disappointed in the movie version of “Order of the Phoenix” because it left out so much! I realize as the books got longer and longer it must have been harder and harder to write a screen play that wouldn’t require multiple intermissions, but I can imagine how hard it must have been to pick and choose what to cut without making the final product seem senseless. I thought the screen adaptation of “The Hunger Games” was dreadful. To me, it gutted out the overall theme of the whole series.

    I’ve read that Nicholas Sparks writes his novels to make them easier to adapt to screen plays. I’m not quite sure how he does this since I’m not a fan of his genre, but from book sales and box office, it seems to be successful for him.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      That’s interesting…I didn’t really have that reaction to The Hunger Games. I enjoyed the movie, although it has some variance from the book. I’m intrigued with what will happen as they continue the movie series, though. Will they get as dark as the books did? Many fans didn’t like the third book as well, but I thought it did a good job of showing what the author had intended from (I believe) the beginning.

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