Retelling vs. Plagiarism

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Retelling vs. Plagiarism

Post by Bohemienne » April 2nd, 2010, 11:18 am

There are countless modern novels out there that readily inform readers that they are intentionally a modern "retelling" of a classic story: Pride and Prejudice, Othello, Heart of Darkness, and even real-life events... What are the complications that can ensue, legal or otherwise, from attempting a retelling of a known story? Does the work have to be in the public domain before you can get away with this, is it a bad idea for a first-time author, etc, etc?

I ask because I recently finished Daphne du Maurier's REBECCA and I can not get the idea of a modernized, YA retelling of it out of my head. I don't believe it's in public domain yet though (it was written in the 1930s) and while I don't think I would want the retelling to be the first MS I shop around, the ideas for it keep coming to me. I don't have the first idea how to approach it ethically or legally though.

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Re: Retelling vs. Plagiarism

Post by polymath » April 2nd, 2010, 12:43 pm

Copyright law is on its surface fairly straightforward, but incredibly complex in practice. Reimagining a storyline can take many legitimate forms, from pastiche to homage to parody and so on. Where the bright line between rights infringement and original work falls varies according to intents and outcomes as well. An original parody of the Potter saga set in a similar milieu is fair game as long as there's no overt infringement or copying of Ms. Rowling's original works. Parody enjoys special protection exclusions under copyright laws and free speech. However, potential risks of litigation and associated costs are not for the faint of heart.

There's a widespread perception that there's no original storyline. How many stories parallel one or another of the installments from the Homeric Cycle? More than a few. One issue there, though, is marketplace perception of overused or too close in contemporaneous time of similar storyline releases. If every storyline obviously paralled one of the two Homeric legends or both, the literature world would be a dull place. Let's see, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, 1997 novel and 2003 movie, and the Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou, 2000, both parallel Homer's Odyssey, 2001, A Space Odyssey movie and novel concurrently released in 1968, The Odyssey a retelling of Homer's original in a television miniseries, 1997. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, 1952, wouldn't require much of a stretch to compare with Homer's Odyssey. Joyce's homage to the Odyssey is widely acknowledged.

Plagiarism is representing someone else's intellectual property as one's own. In the publishing world of today, what with digital technology and widespread access to literature, it's all but impossible to pass someone else's intellectual property off as one's own original work. There are sharp readers on the prowl for plagiarism, whose passions involve tracing the sources that inspire writers' stories and styles and influences. It's no coincidence then when a genuine plagiarist is uncovered. On the other hand, due to technology, it's also likely that similar inspirations and similar premises can be published contemporaneously and result in contentious, well-intended, frivolous if unfounded, rights infringement litigation.

A respectful, honest, appropriate nod to an author's intellectual property's inpiration for an original, entertaining reimagining of a storyline should earn respect rather than garner contempt and should obviate litigation potential. Is it worth the risk of litigation? is a question that should be asked, and will be asked by the marketplace.

Updating storylines is a common practice, too. Has a given story lost contemporary cultural relevance? is a good question to ask and answer with an updated storyline. West Side Story updates and reimagines Romeo and Juliet.
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Re: Retelling vs. Plagiarism

Post by tameson » April 2nd, 2010, 1:55 pm

My current novel is the retelling of an old Chinese myth, which was written in the 1500s and is a classic in that part of the world. I changed names, made it somewhat less mystical and created my own, somewhat Asian world. With the first attributed author (and before that it was a folk tale) being dead 400 years I am not too worried. My concern is that when I say it is a retelling of Journey to the West, people look at me and say, oh, and what is that about. Which then leads me to explaining someone else's work instead of mine. So, I have just stopped mentioning it. I'll still include it in the query, but only at the end (after I have discussed my story and what makes it special). If I thought more people would immediately recognize the story, I would put it more upfront.

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Re: Retelling vs. Plagiarism

Post by turtlesoupapples » April 3rd, 2010, 6:51 pm

Do a little research. You can find out for sure if this story is already in the public domain or not, and you can take this opportunity to educate yourself a little on copyright laws (though they were explained pretty well by polymath). Just be smart and reasonable.

One thing I love about retellings and updated stories is the opportunity to build on the original story--and even to depart from it. Be careful not to get tied down and feel like you have to be true to the original--this is YOUR story. Keep in mind, the more you change from the original, the more it's yours and unlikely to violate copyright. And, seriously, if someone reads your story and doesn't immediately recognize that it's based on another, then you're probably not breaking any copyright laws (this is assuming they've read the original). If you used the same names and places and plot in a protected story, and the only thing you've changed is the year and the kind of clothes they're wearing....then you may want to keep that one to yourself.

This can be a tricky issue (and I hope I'm explaining myself correctly), but I think the best thing you can do is to research the fine points of copyright law. Or just write it for your own enjoyment. :)

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