I’m sure we’ve all experienced it while reading or watching a movie. That feeling that we’ve “already witnessed or experienced a current situation, even though the exact circumstances of the previous encounter are uncertain and were perhaps imagined” ~http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9j%C3%A0_vu
The old expression that there’s nothing new under the sun certainly applies to entertainment. But as an author, Déjà vu doesn’t quite capture the sick feeling we get in the pit of our stomaches when we run into something too similar to be comfortable. Last night while watching DAYBREAKERS, an almost film noir rendering of a futuristic vampire movie–which I thoroughly enjoyed btw–there was a moment when the lead character used the exact line I’d used in my vampire romance UNFORGIVEN.
“Life’s a bitch and then you don’t die.”
The line had me rushing to check when DAYBREAKERS was released (September 2009). I was relieved that I had written the line into UNFORGIVEN prior to that date. Curiosity peaked, I googled the line and found it had been used many times before. I ran it through a plagiarism checker program http://plagiarisma.net/ and it returned 61,000 hits. It was a fun turn of a phrase that I enjoyed “hearing” from my unrepentant vampire, Dillon. Apparently it was so fun that others had enjoyed using it as well! I’m sure there will be still other writers who use it in the years to come. I don’t own the phrase. In this particular situation, because it’s a turn of a phrase which changes only one word from the original famous quote attributed to an unknown, I can’t possibly copyright “don’t”.
So, as authors, do we google and/or check every line in a manuscript?
Of course not.
And this is my point… it’s a far cry from plagiarism to have a similar line…or character, or premise occur.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve reworked entire premises when I’ve seen a similarity before a book went to print. I’ve cut lines. I’ve changed characters names. (Remind me sometime to tell you the story of a last minute character name change gone embarrassingly wrong!) We all want to be original. We all want to be the first to think of something clever. We all get upset when we see something that seems too similar to our own work whether our work came before or after.
It’s frustrating either way!
The whole “life’s a bitch and then you don’t die” coincidence illustrates why percentages are looked at in plagiarism cases.
Propping someone else’s book beside the computer and directly, deliberately copying from it also happens. Talk about a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach! I can’t even imagine how a person can go there.
But there’s a world of difference between the two.
Legions of adolescent Twilight fans love to send hate mail to authors that write about werewolves or vampires in their books. I’ve seen some quoted on Twitter accusing the author of plagiarism or, better yet, accusing the author of getting the mythology of vampires wrong.
Never mind that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897!
Readers and film buffs who enjoy the classics in every genre…horror, romance, science fiction…can always come up with an earlier work. My pandemic premise in “Wilderness” was inspired by Stephen King’s The Stand and Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain. What if supernatural creatures were immune to a pandemic and the government wanted to discover the secret of their immunity? My vampire versus vampire hunter in HUNGER was inspired by Dark Shadows and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What if beauty was the beast? What if the girl was the vampire and the brooding alpha male the hunter?
In the end, it’s not what you do but how you do it that matters. The “life’s a bitch” line in UNFORGIVEN was later used in DAYBREAKERS, but the line and the fact that both stories had vampires in them was the only similarity between the two. Apart from that line, both stories diverged into very different works.
And that’s where I part company with the phrase “There’s nothing new under the sun.” because every new story that is born is different than the others that came before–like snowflakes– even if the differences are subtle, even if vampires or pandemics or star crossed lovers have been done before. They haven’t been done by me until I do them.
Life’s a bitch and then you don’t die.
Broken Bow, Oklahoma, had changed. He hadn’t expected to find it the same. Since he’d been free, he’d wandered over pathways that should have been familiar, but trails hadbecome asphalt, and the prairie where he’d once taken part in cattle drives had given way to shopping malls and fast food restaurants. Dillon emptied the rest of the vodka over the vampyric remains at his feet. No matterhow many ravening beasts he exterminated, he could never atone. As he stood andwalked away, he lit another match and tossed it over his shoulder onto the spreading poolof vodka. The room began to burn. Peripherally, he caught the gleam, first, in a flash ofblue-tinged white, then warming to a rich yellowish-orange.
He didn’t look back at the flames, but he felt their heat licking at his heels.