Thursday, April 22, 2021

Ownership of Ideas

Volume 31, Issue 1 of the JOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS includes an article by Dennis Wilson Wise on the literary development of EPVIDS (evil, possessed, vampire, demonic swords). He begins with the trope's modern origins in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and Poul Anderson, who borrowed motifs from Finnish and Norse legends, which in turn share common roots. Wise then analyzes the uses of sentient, demonic swords by Michael Moorcock and other more recent sword-and-sorcery authors. The article fascinatingly highlights how the different writers incorporated the same archetypal concept into their fictional worlds in their own individual ways.

Editor John Campbell is said to have sometimes proposed the same plot or theme to several different contributors at once. Each writer would come up with a unique story, unlike any of the others. There are no completely "original" fiction ideas. Robert Heinlein claimed that only three basic plots exist. Space for creative "originality" lies in the execution of the idea.

I know of at least two anthologies based on filk songs that illustrate this principle. The fantasy anthology LAMMAS NIGHT, edited by Josepha Sherman, comprises a variety of stories based on Mercedes Lackey's song of that title. The volume begins with the lyrics of the song, followed by Lackey's own conversion of the poem into a prose narrative. The rest of the stories develop the premise in many different directions. CARMEN MIRANDA'S GHOST IS HAUNTING SPACE STATION THREE, edited by Don Sakers, plays a similar game with a Leslie Fish song. Long ago, I read an anthology weaving variations on the plot of "The Highwayman," the classic poem by Alfred Noyes (unfortunately, I don't remember the book's title).

Vivian Vande Velde's single-author collection THE RUMPELSTILTSKIN PROBLEM explores six different angles on the traditional fairy tale, offering explanations for the details that don't seem to make sense. (For example, if the little man can spin straw into gold, why would he care about getting the heroine's ring and necklace as rewards?) And other authors have created their own versions of Rumpelstiltskin, such as Naomi Novik in SPINNING SILVER. Among countless re-imaginings of "Beauty and the Beast," Robin McKinley wrote two, and Mercedes Lackey has published three.

These works demonstrate a truth Lackey repeats over and over on Quora, in answer to questions from naive aspiring authors: "You cannot copyright an idea."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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