An idea by any other name

I got accused of plagiarism last week; not the nicest email I’ve ever received.

A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed a screenplay on Trigger Street; a couple of months later I posted a screenplay, originally called THE CRYSTAL SKULLS, now called CAUSE AND EFFECT. Apparently they contain a similar idea; not the same idea, but a similar one.

Recently, two years later, I received an angry email from the author accusing me of stealing his idea. Now I’m at a slight disadvantage here, because I don’t really remember this guy’s script. The review I wrote at the time hasn’t helped to refresh my memory either. The only thing I can say for certain is, I didn’t like his script.

CAUSE AND EFFECT is about a group of people who ensure the future happens the way it’s supposed to. They’re guardians of the timeline, keeping history on course.

The other script is about a camping site and some giant spiders. There was some kind of time travel element, or possibly an inter-dimensional travel element or maybe even something else – I honestly can’t remember. I’ve since downloaded this script and a quick scan through leaves me none the wiser; save for a mention of a guardian of time.

Although I don’t appreciate aggressive emails, I understand this guy thinks I’ve ripped him off; so I explained:

The seed of the idea comes from a Terry Pratchett book called: SMALL GODS
which was published in 1992. There’s a minor character, a monk, whose order
is described as the caretakers of history. I liked this idea and formulated
a story around it; one I was mulling over for a long time before I wrote
CAUSE AND EFFECT. Another influence was Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION series; where 
psycho-historians plot out the future of the human race and
manipulate events to ensure it happens.

This isn’t enough for him and his anger persists. For some reason, the fact I can mention two fairly famous novels which contain a similar idea, isn’t proof he didn’t come up with the idea originally; or that I didn’t deliberately steal it from him. Growing up, I read and watched a lot of sci-fi; this guardian idea seems like a fairly standard one to me.

Off the top of my head, and without the benefit of Google: there were the black and white guardians in DOCTOR WHO; the guardian in the STARTREK episode – The City on the Edge of Forever; or even Jean-Claude Van Damme in TIMECOP.

It seems to me that originality comes from the execution of the idea, rather than the idea itself. As far as I can work out, my execution is totally different to his.

This got me thinking about the nature of coincidence; it’s a bugger when it happens to you, but it seems to happen all the time. A few months back, a friend lent me the complete series of FIREFLY; I watched it in absolute shock.

I wrote this series when I was ten. Or at least I devised the series when I was ten, played the games with Lego, then wrote it down in my twenties.

The set-up of the universe, the look of the show, the plots, even the characters: all of it. To be fair, my main character was called Hal, instead of Mal, and the ships looked different; but it’s all there. The stories aren’t identical; but they’re close enough to look like Joss Whedon wrote them after reading my synopses.

The only snag is, I’ve never shown the scripts to anyone. Ever. It’s all coincidence. A series of incredibly bizarre and improbable coincidences; but coincidence all the same. This was my Magnum Opus, the one idea I’d been holding back for the right time. I wrote it so long ago, the scripts aren’t even on my PC; they’re on an old AMSTRAD gathering dust under the stairs.

Or they were. They’re now in a skip somewhere in Brighton; Joss has already done it, they’re useless to me now.

So my point is: your ideas probably aren’t as unique as you think they are.

The problem with writing is you have to show your work to someone at some point. They might rip you off, they might not. They might have a similar project already in development, that’s the chance you have to take; but think long and hard before you decide someone has stolen your ideas – that way madness lies.

You could of course keep your ideas to yourself and never show anyone; lock them up and bury them under the stairs – and remain an anonymous writer forever. Or you can let them free, hope they find a sympathetic reader and blossom into a proper scriptwriter.

I’ve tried the locking away method, it doesn’t work. Either Joss broke into my house, read my mind, or (more likely) watched the same shows, read the same books and had the same idea. Sending my ideas winging around the world seems a much better option. If your ideas aren’t that unique; the trick is just to get there first.

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