We’ve discussed a lot of topics for writers–amateur and professional–so far:
- Coming up with plots
- Coming up with strategies for marketing your book (even if through free services such as FictionPress, WattPad, etc.)
- Knowing your target audience / engaging them vs. selling-to them
But now it’s time to venture into that darker subject, the one that many writers (me included) would rather not think about, because all it does is make us second-guess the work we wish to put out there. Think about it. If you remain paranoid of getting sued by someone who says that you stole their idea–and definitely fearful of lawsuits that could occur–you may never publish anything. (But this is still no excuse for putting a work out there too similar to the work of another writer.)
Yup. We’re talking plagiarism / copyright infringement / anything you can think of that would get you in trouble and challenge whether or not you own that essay, or poem, novel, short story, etc. that you’re wanting to sell.
The question is, how do you avoid a lawsuit? Truth be told, there’s no way to guarantee that you will. And this fear of being sued doesn’t just apply for writers either. Movie and TV show producers, commercials, small and big businesses–any medium you can think of, even the ones that aren’t trying to make money off of people like you and I–have been sued before for plagiarism, stealing someone else’s idea or content, etc. (An article from The Content Factory mentions a case like this–and I would highly recommend giving it a read, though it’s pretty long-winded, when you get the chance.)
There’s many infringement cases out there that have occurred, but we’ll look at 3 for good measure. (Oops–is what I just said patented or owned by someone else out there)?
Frozen Land (by Phase 4 Films) vs. Frozen (by Disney) — Let’s refrain from showing images of these two works. We don’t want to get sued.
- Long story short, a company known as Phase 4 Films was producing Frozen Land around the same time of Disney’s Frozen release, but confusion arised because Phase 4’s logo for Frozen Land was highly similar to the logo of Disney’s movie.
Wheddon and Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods vs. Peter Gallagher’s book The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pine — Let’s still refrain from showing images of these two works.
- Gallagher’s book came first in 2006, and he felt that the 2012 movie by Wheddon and Goddard followed the same plot as his story–and even used the same names for characters as his own work. Had the judge not ruled that young people venturing into the wilderness and being murdered was a common (and unprotected) trend in horror films, Wheddon and Goddard could have owed Gallagher $10,000,000. Yup. That’s a lot of money.
Disney’s The Lion King vs. Tzeuka’s Kimba the White Lion — You get the idea.
- The names Kimba and Simba alone (with both characters being lions) are clues to controversy that could arise between Tzeuka and Disney’s work. Even some designs of characters in the Lion King (a brown, rogue lion / a baboon / etc.) mirrored characters of the same species from Tzeuka’s 1950 manga series (which also became a TV show in 1965). While Tzeuka has not tried to sue the creators of the Lion King (and the Lion King workers have claimed no intent of plagiarism), the similarities still stand–that’s really all you need for trouble to arise.
This isn’t to say, however, that you should let go of the aspiration to become a writer–it would be rather sad to do so on the grounds of fearing a lawsuit anyway. Rather, know how serious cases of plagiarism are taken, and take your own precautionary measures in avoiding a case of your own.
Google keywords pertaining to your story (i.e. cats, thriller, fantasy, giraffes–either as separate searches, or one big search of all these keywords combined) and see what pops-up. And if you want a truly specific term to be tested, place it in quotation marks before searching it. Google will show you results only specific to that term. (See image below):
But don’t just rely on Google for seeing if someone owns something. Visit the U.S. Trademark Office to find out if a word you wish to patent (for say, an alien character) is a word not only unused by others, but also not too similar to words out there with legal holdings on them. (I typically use their Browse Dictionary feature, though remember to log-out once you’re finished to release their system’s resources allocated for you.) The U.S. Copyright Office is just as important to check for existing, copyrighted works as well (specifically using Search Records feature).
But what about your character’s physical appearance? Or the physical appearance of a landscape you’ve sketched out? Maybe the physical appearance of a planet itself, etc.? One site I use to browse for a wide database of images owned by other artists is DeviantArt. I would strongly recommend browsing their website for images pertaining to certain keywords (maybe even same names) of your characters. Even if not using keywords, browsing the site’s gallery of images in general will help you come across imagery that may be quite similar to your own work. If you do, this means that an artist before you could potentially claim that your story’s art is too similar to their own–and let’s just say that it’s always better safe than monetarily sorry.
These resources though aren’t the only ones you could use (but are at least the ones I regularly use for their efficiency). Still, the web is full of a lot of information–and the more websites you utilize in seeing what compares to what you’ve written, or what you’ve drawn, or even what you’re thinking of right now, the more you’ll know what about your own work needs to be revised to truly be yours.
However, there are royalty-free sources out there (though keep in mind that even these have legal conditions that you should know about). For images, you could utilize Google’s Labeled for reuse with modification feature:
Pixabay is another source of royalty-free images. (Before we go any further, royalty-free images are ones you can legally feature on your websites, blogs, etc.–but always read their ownership rights thoroughly in determining whether or not you could revise / copyright one as a work of your own.) Better still, don’t try to copyright a royalty-free image. Remember, someone made it before you did. They left it for the public to use–maybe you should too. But there’s always the alternative of creating your own image–and I don’t mean tracing someone else’s work. Let the imagination flow from your mind onto the paper (same for writing) and see what happens.
One last thing: certainly don’t plagiarize someone else’s material on purpose. Even if you think they lack the money capable of suing (and even if they really do), there is still a moral code that we follow as writers: respecting the work of others. If you found your work floating around the web or in a magazine, on a TV show, maybe a selection of words you created before some artist out there used them as lyrics, etc.–you would not be happy.
Research is key here (and could save you hefty court fees). You can’t know of everything that’s out there (and in some cases, the one being sued and the one suing agree on a settlement), but certainly look around and see what’s out there. Even if you’re satisfied with your story as it is (and can’t bare the thought of changing it), just imagine the monetary pains that will come with getting sued. It is a hard decision, but all writers should make it.
Remember, content that isn’t your own is content better left alone.