by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
copying, film, inspiration, music

Directors Admit They 'Steal' Ideas... But Most People Recognize That As Inspiration

from the what's-the-real-difference? dept

Jon Lawrence points us to an article in Variety where a bunch of movie directors admit that they often look to other movies for ideas to "steal" in making their own movies. Of course, they don't really mean "steal." They mean that they use the ideas of others for inspiration and to build off of in creating their own films. Yet, these days, when there's been an ongoing push to make people think they can own ideas and concepts, that line between good ("inspiration") and bad ("stealing") seems to keep getting pushed further and further back, for no good reason at all. If people recognized that there's no real line at all, and being inspired by someone else to copy them is actually a great jumping off point for new art, we'd have a lot fewer silly lawsuits. I'm reminded of a passage in James Boyle's The Public Domain where he quotes Ray Charles on copying other musicians:
I knew back then that Nat Cole was bigger than ever. Whites could relate to him because he dealt with material they understood, and he did so with great feeling. Funny thing, but during all these years I was imitating Nat Cole, I never thought twice about it, never felt bad about copying the cat's licks. To me it was practically a science. I worked at it, I enjoyed it, I was proud of it, and I loved doing it. He was a guy everyone admired, and it just made sense to me, musical and commercial sense, to study his technique. It was something like when a young lawyer--just out of school--respects an older lawyer. He tries to get inside his mind, he studies to see how he writes up all his cases, and he's going to sound a whole lot like the older man--at least till he figures out how to get his own shit together. Today I hear some singers who I think sound like me. Joe Cocker, for instance. Man, I know that cat must sleep with my records. But I don't mind. I'm flattered; I understand. After all, I did the same thing.
Yet, these days, if you sound too much like someone else, you get sued.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Ima Fish, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 8:02am

    To anyone who thinks ideas can be owned, I'd like him or her to suggest one original work of art. Not from himself, but anyone single work of art that is not derived from earlier sources and is completely original.

    Here's an example, no matter how original you think a movie may be, movies are merely recorded plays which are acted stories like books, which are mere stories, which have been around as long as we could speak.

    And a good example of musicians borrowing is the Velvet Underground. REM, Gun Club, and Jesus Mary Chain all loved VU and used such influences in their music. However, each band sounds completely different from the other.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Norm, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 8:33am

    Idea stealing

    Wait until someone [use a term you can deal with here] an idea from you at work and receives benefit from it with management.

    I'll bet the idea of an idea being stolen will cross your mind then.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Ima Fish, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 8:42am

    Re: Idea stealing

    You simple do not get it. Ideas cannot be owned. When you "take" someone's idea, you're not depriving them of the idea. Thus, there is simply no reason to talk about ownership because there is absolutely no scarcity.

    What if the guy standing next to you accused you of "stealing" his air by breathing. That makes no sense. You'd think he was crazy. I think the same thing of anyone who thinks ideas can be stolen or owned.

    And I'll offer my challenge to you. Name one completely original idea deserving of ownership.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Norm, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 9:02am

    Re: Re: Idea stealing

    If you have an idea - such as a good story - let's say like "Harry Potter" -

    Before you write it completely, I write and publish it.

    What do you say about it? And if you complain or sue should I retort "But you can't steal an idea, you aren't deprived of the idea."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Norm, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 9:08am

    Intellectual Property

    So in your world, Ima Fish, there is no such thing - correct?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    nasch, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 9:26am

    Re: Re: Idea stealing

    Ideas cannot be owned or stolen, but credit can. If I take credit for an idea you came up with, I have in fact taken something away from you. What's insidious is that it's hard to get that credit back without looking childish.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Norm, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 9:35am

    Re: Re: Re: Idea stealing

    Oh for crying out loud. Ideas can't be taken, but credit can. So the "real" issue is semantics?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Ima Fish, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 9:51am

    Re: Re: Re: Idea stealing

    The works relating to "Harry Potter" are protected by Copyright. Copyright specially does not protect ideas.

    And just to make this clear, the idea of a kid with magical powers is not owned by anyone, including JK Rowling.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    Chris H. (profile), Feb 10th, 2009 @ 9:53am

    Re: Re: Re: Idea stealing

    Ask any novelist, editor, or screenwriter. "Ideas" are a dime a dozen. Execution is the key. The 20,000 words in a novel, organized the way they are, are what can be copyrighted. Saying that the idea "Boy Wizard In High School" is even remotely equivalent to the books that J.K. wrote is ridiculous.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Ima Fish, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 9:58am

    Re: Re: Re: Idea stealing

    "Ideas cannot be owned or stolen, but credit can..."

    Credit for an idea can be owned?! First, give me one, yes, only one example of an original credit that should be owned.

    Third, if the guy standing next to you takes credit for the air you're breathing, because he just farted it out, do you pay him for his credit?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Ima Fish, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 10:02am

    Re: Intellectual Property

    "So in your world, Ima Fish, there is no such thing - correct?"

    No. And apparently, you have a complete misunderstanding of what I wrote and IP law.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    Jon L (profile), Feb 10th, 2009 @ 10:27am

    Idea Stealing

    Norm: First of all, your version of "Harry Potter" would be different from anyone elses. It might be good, it might not be.

    There are dozens of stories over the years of boys as magicians, and therefore the "idea' of a boy wizard as a copyrightable thing is ridiculous.

    Now, JK Rowling is an excellent writer, and it's not so much her idea, but the (and this is *important*) the execution of her idea and the characters within it that make it a unique and copyrightable work.

    We need to get this through our thick heads, there ARE NO ORIGINAL STORIES in the world.

    Indeed, if you study writing, you can boil down every story ever told to one of three archetypes (ideas!).

    1. Man vs. Man
    2. Man vs. Himself
    3. Man vs. Nature

    There are infinite variations on these ideas, but that's it. So if we take copyright protection as it's going, to it's natural end, and I copyright all stories that are "one guy vs. another guy," then I own that idea, and the rest of you owe me trillions of dollars.

    But that's ridiculous, and it deprives society of the very "progress of the arts" that copyright was designed with in mind in the first place.

    And to your last issue of semantics - words are not just words, words have meanings. The meanings are different. Ideas and credit are completely different. There are lines in the sand (courts) where I can copy the story of a young wizard, with a different name, place, and characters and that's totally legal. What I can't copy are the details. Harry Potter. Hagrid, Hogwarts, and the whole ilk of the details. Those all belong to Ms. Rowling.

    And of course, someone else trying to take credit for an idea, unless the idea was divulged in such details as make it into the final creative work, and can be substantiated in a court, is silly as well.

    Ideas, as general ideas can be taken, SHOULD be taken and used. Everyone will use them differently and therein lies the artistic genius.

    On the other hand, I also speak with a lot of producers who think that our professional association (the Producers Guild of America) should be fighting tooth and nail to put DRM on every single thing producers put out (a different story... but I'll digress for a moment).

    How sad it is that an industry that prides itself on being "creative" can be creative enough to reinvent itself. They're not worried about protecting creativity, they're worried about protecting out-sized paychecks. Period.

    IDEAS are not copyrightable. They should not be protectable unless they meet a certain level of detail - and that's where the courts come in.

    That's a tough bar to figure out where to set, and as a content creator myself, I'm not even sure where to set it, my peers all have different ideas of where to set it. Many want to make as much $$ as they can off of doing as little as possible. A few actually want to work and create new things all the time and are flattered when someone else "rips them off" (and let's be honest, it's not like someone "rippping me off" has the same dialog, same actors, same character names, same setting, etc.).

    Again, take it back to those three ideas (archetypes) above. There are no original ideas, there are only new interpretations of old ideas, and those interpretations and executions are where the art (and copyright), lies.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Thomas Jefferson, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 10:32am

    Jefferson on IP in 1813

    It has been pretended by some that inventors have a natural and exclusive right to their inventions, and not merely for their own lives, but inheritable to their heirs. But while it is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from nature at all, it would be singular to admit a natural and even an hereditary right to inventors. It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject, that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance. By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common, is the property for the moment of him who occupies it, but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society. It would be curious then, if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody. Accordingly, it is a fact, as far as I am informed, that England was, until we copied her, the only country on earth which ever, by a general law, gave a legal right to the exclusive use of an idea. In some other countries it is sometimes done, in a great case, and by a special and personal act, but, generally speaking, other nations have thought that these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.

    Considering the exclusive right to invention as given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society, I know well the difficulty of drawing a line between the things which are worth to the public the embarrassment of an exclusive patent, and those which are not. As a member of the patent board for several years, while the law authorized a board to grant or refuse patents, I saw with what slow progress a system of general rules could be matured.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 10:41am


    How about Gilgamesh?

    granted most things ripped of Gilgamesh, but I think it was pretty original.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Ima Fish, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 10:56am

    Re: Idea Stealing

    "1. Man vs. Man 2. Man vs. Himself 3. Man vs. Nature"

    So a movie about robots attacking earth would be man versus man, because man invented and created the robots, or man versus nature, because the robots would be made out of iron and other metals? ;-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 11:08am

    Ideas, per se, are not subject to any federal or state law preventing their use, except in the limited instance where a contract of a confidential relationship may exist.

    Copyright pertains solely to how an idea is expressed, and patents pertain solely to embodiments of an idea.

    As the quote from Jefferson notes above, it is not an easy line to draw...but the rule is clear. An idea? No protection as noted above.

    For those who may wish to pull their hair out over the idea of "ideas" receiving protection under the law, I suggest they read Professor Arthur Miller's article "COMMON LAW PROTECTION FOR PRODUCTS OF THE MIND: AN "IDEA" WHOSE TIME HAS COME", 119 Harv. L. Rev. 703 (2006). It is an outstanding article that transcends much more than just state common law protection for "ideas". His insight into patent law as now constituted is quite interesting, and particularly the part concerning what in law is known as "preemption. As one reads this part it is useful to keep in the back of the mind what his article means with respect to things like business method (e.g., In re Comiskey) and software patents (e.g., In re Bilski). He interjects a twist in the discussion that few, if any, have recognized as a possible consequence of these recent court decisions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Ima Fish, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 11:14am

    Re: Re:

    From Wikipeida: "Scholars believe that it (the Epic of Gilgamesh) originated as a series of Sumerian legends..."

    Thinking about it, the first story ever told was probably intended as a lie. My guess is that some hunter came back empty handed after a hunt and came up with a story about the "big one that got away."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 11:15am

    Re: Re: Re:

    well I was kind of joking anyway.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    RD, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 11:30am

    lock them up

    That is an admission of a crime. They should be arrested and sued. Copyright is absolute. Right?

    Wait, its not? People have been influenced in their creations by others that came before them for centuries you say? Sorry, that kind of thinking went out with the 20th century. The 21st century is all about enforcement of rights to the exclusion of prior art, common sense, or even the original intent of the law. In this new paradigm, even the concept and idea is enforceable.

    Isnt it interesting (and by "interesting", I mean "bullshit") to note how, when its big-content admitting "stealing" ideas from other movies, well, thats ok. But when someone else does it (i.e. not the elite/rich) then WOAH THERE! YOU NEED TO BE SUED!

    In the 21st century America, only greedy hypocrites rule the land.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Ima Fish, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 11:33am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I sort of thought so, but with some people here you can never tell. Sorry if I offended.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 11:54am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    no, I was trying to be deadpan enough that some would take it seriously. Most people don't know the history of Gilgamesh, just that it is the oldest written work we've found.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Jon L, Feb 10th, 2009 @ 9:12pm

    Re: Re: Idea Stealing

    Hm - I guess that would be man vs. man/nature - as it would be something created by a being of some sort, somewhere else in the universe?

    Technical conundrum - still an archetype;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    EMComments, Feb 11th, 2009 @ 4:11am

    Copyright and IP

    It's straightforward really:
    The Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries
    (United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8)

    Thus the whole point of copyright is to promote the dissemination of ideas. The theory being that if people have (for a limited time) absolute control over, and the right to exploit, their ideas, they will publish them so that others can take them up and run with them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    Big Mike (profile), Feb 11th, 2009 @ 7:40am

    Does this remind you of John Fogerty

    Wasn't John Fogerty sued for sounding too much like John Fogerty in CCR?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    T roller, Oct 6th, 2009 @ 12:51pm

    Plagerism equals original if content falls in head

    The main problem is Rowling was not the original user of Harry Potter. She claims that she comes up with ideas on her own with no outside inspiration.

    If you watch the movie Troll, the main characters name is in fact Harry potter. While this in itself mean nothing if you pay more attention to Eunice St. Clair she is actually dressed in a manner consistant with the older teachers of Hogwarts. One picture on her wall looks just as Hagrid with less hair. Now here is the thing on this. She wrote a book a non-picture book. So any resemblance here would be with the art director of the movies. However the underlying story is relatively the same except Deatheaters=Dark Fairies and Muggles well are still muggles just under a different name. Big evil nasty wants to have non magic users killed out so there ideals will become law, but this has been used time after time.

    The main problem with rowling is she will not give credit to anyone and all ideas are her own with no inspiration. I find it hard to believe she cannot say that she was inspired by one of the multitude of fantasy movies/books in circlation. She is a plagerist just as Disney plagerised Hamlet to write Lion King. The problem is she is to proud and mighty just as Disney(not walt but the company) to just giving credit were it is do.

    By the way it looks like an injuction is in process to stop the rerelease of troll. Do to the name Harry Potter being used even though this is a remake and would be the same name used in the original 80's movie. She is also suing an indian based movie with the name Hari Putar.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.