Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Copyrighting Ideas

A note on Repo Men vs Repo! The Genetic Opera:

Dear rabid fans of Repo! who are pissed off about Repo Men Stealing Repo!'s Idea:

That "stolen" idea was not original.

(Here's a recap for those who have no idea what I'm talking about.)

One of the writers of Repo! gives us a "history lesson" on his blog, demonstrating that Repo! was kicking around in some form or another all the way back to 1999. The implication is, of course, that since the idea for Repo Men was first made public in 2001, OMG THEY STOLE OUR IDEA!

Except... just a cursory Google search turns up the 1997 award-winning play "Harvest", whose central plot bears suspicious resemblances to the idea behind Repo!. And further, while I can't quote examples offhand, this whole organ-buying idea pops up a lot in cyberpunk. 1997 is before 1999. OMG plagiarism!

(There's also the mention on that blog post that the similarities became too much for the Repo! author to "bare" reading more when he found out that in both stories, the company the repo men works for turns on them when they go rogue. The funny thing is, I've only seen parts of Repo!, and I guessed on my own that this would happen once I knew the Repo Man himself was a character. It's that bloody obvious of a plot twist. Protagonist works for evil corporation and goes rogue, then they hunt him down. Gee, I've never seen that plot before!)

This is not to knock Repo! itself; as I mentioned earlier, I've only seen parts, but I can't dislike anything that has Anthony Stewart Head singing in it. The point is, all ideas have been done before, and this could just be bad timing.

I can see where the outrage is coming from, given the concept similarity and the oddly identical marketing campaigns, but still. At least wait until the actual film comes out, why don't ya?

And a final point: Shit like this happens all the time, just not usually to cult films - because most cult films have silly central ideas. No one's going to make anything that could be accused as a rip-off of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, because you can't do much else with that idea. Repo!, though, uses a pretty iconic idea with a clear real-world metaphor. A claim of coming up with something at the same time as someone else, though, isn't necessarily bullshit. Take the word of a script reader for it:

Like one time, I swear, I covered three different screenplays -- submitted from different parts of the country -- all of which had key scenes set at a southwestern rattlesnake farm. Why, you could go years without reading a good rattlesnake farm scene, and here I had three in one week. Needless to say, after that I became more sympathetic to claims of 'parallel development.'

And it's true. That's why, if you're writing a book or a script, you can never hope to coast along with a crap story and a great original idea. After all, won't they forgive the crap story for the original idea that they can't get anywhere else. No. Because that idea? Probably not as original as you think. So you better have a great execution, because that's what will make it or break it.

What triggered this post was an article on Tor about the subject here, a well-written article that nearly had me nodding in agreement by the end:

Let this be a warning to creative people everywhere: guard your creations well, but at the same time steel yourselves for the possibility of a Repo befalling you. You can copyright your stories, you can copyright your art, but you cannot copyright the beautiful ideas that give them their uniqueness and life. It is frightening and it is upsetting, but it is inescapable.

But wait. Would it really be such a great idea to copyright ideas? That would eliminate entire genres; the Tolkien estate could sue almost every epic fantasy writer ever into oblivion, and that's actually one of the better scenarios, since at least we'd still have Lord of the Rings. Very often, the first work in a genre is not that great. Plus, you'd simply have powerful corporations hire writers, however crappy, to come up with as many story ideas as possible and publish them as crappy short stories, claiming copyright based on that and suing the pants off of anyone else who comes up with a similar idea independently and makes something good with that. Now that's frightening and upsetting.

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