From day one, we learn plagiarism is a big no-no. Likewise, we tend to dislike anyone who "borrows" our hard work, whether in the case of a story or a witticism.
But can someone borrow just a little and get away with it?
For instance, music producers tend to pay an "homage" to other artists by sampling their tracks. We've seen in the past how record labels can sue each other for sharing too much of the same work. Does the same rule apply to literature?
A Broke Midnight in Paris
Here's my bias: I'm a huge Woody Allen fan.
While many argue Midnight in Paris is one of Allen's lesser works, I think it's one of his greatest. For those of you who've never seen the flick, here's a quick summary: A screenwriter visits Paris, France with his wife-to-be and her family. The entire trip is disastrous by day, but at midnight the writer, for some unexplained reason, travels to 1920s' Paris and mingles with the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
The big deal in the news lately is the Hemingway estate (his surviving heirs) is suing Northrop Grumman Corporation, the Washington Post, and Sony Pictures for copyright infringement.
I'd argue Hemingway wouldn't mind if you quoted him, but apparently the heirs have a different view, especially in case of Sony's Midnight in Paris, in which Owen Wilson slightly misquotes the man in the woods by saying, "The past is not dead. Actually, it's not even past."
The real quote is "The past is never dead. It's not even past." That quote comes from
Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III. I think. I'm pretty sure.
It's rather normal for films and books to borrow clever quotes, specifically when one of the characters is a characterization of the author who wrote the phrase. Hemingway in the film is the screenwriter's biggest influence, with a close second of Fitzgerald. He meets Hemingway (well, the actor playing the character of Hemingway), and it turn, he tries to quote Hemingway. I mean, the main character magically appeared in 1920s' Paris! It all makes creative sense.
But apparently using the phrase or misquoting it is still grounds for the Hemingway heirs to make more money off of the big man's name. Don't they already own his sea?
Although the quote wasn't directly sourced, the natural transition of scenes pointed to Hemingway, even if you were unfamiliar with the quote.
Common Use, Fair Use, and Me Personally
Sony is rebutting by claiming Owen Wilson's line is protected by "fair use." Most of you have probably heard of fair use, but let me provide a skinny: It means there's a certain portion (or not) of material you can use without attribution (money in the case of a film) for multiple reasons. The main reason for a fair-use claim is educational. A professor is teaching about film and has to present to film to help educate his students.
Although Sony can make me itchy, I'll have to side with the giant corporation for now. They didn't still a plot or dramatic amount of a story. Authors quote other authors all the time. Then again, Sony didn't give credit to the original work like the beginning of most novels will.
Common use is similar to fair use, but it's not as limiting. Unless my publisher states otherwise in my works, I have most of them set up for common use. Basically, I allow other writers and artists to "borrow" small lines or snippets of my works to create their own. This might sound like plagiarism but to me, something very original can come from it. Check out John D'Agata.
Personally, as long as you provide an attribution (not even moolah) for a small quote or portion, I'm happy. It makes me happier when people let me know where they're using the snippet first, but unless you still my entire concept or story, we're on good terms.
Likewise, I don't think the Hemingway heirs should really be pursuing lawsuits based a plagiarism or copyright infringement basis, simply because a character quoted a book or an author. Then again, during weak economic periods, stealing someone else's profits can be one of the few efficient ways to make that money, that cash. Just ask Apple.
That's my take, but how would you feel if someone "borrowed" a piece of your hard work?
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Fear, focus, and the future. C.M. Humphries talks about writing, horror, and whatever.