Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hoisted by your own petard

For those not familiar with the term, a petard was a small medieval bomb named after the French verb 'peter' (pronounced 'pet-eh') which means to create an explosion of noxious gas between the legs (I'll let you work that one out). Because the making of explosives was a very rough science in those days, petards were frequently prone to going off prematurely which is why engineers would place them and then 'run like hell'. The less experienced of these engineers would often hurriedly place their bombs and then run away in a straight line (being the shortest distance between the castle wall they were blowing up and their army’s encampment). Unfortunately a straight line is also the most likely direction for the back blast to take and that would then knock them off their feet (hoisted by their own petard) – often proving to be a fatal experience.

So, what's the connection with this article? Well, I'm looking at how easy it is for the unwary to create the objects of their own destruction and also how dangerous it is to run in a straight line; that's why I reckoned the petard was a good analogy.

Continuing the theme of explosives, once you step away from pure fiction with completely invented characters, you immediately start creating these devices. Unlike (non-recorded) speech, your written words are permanently recorded and there for everyone to read  - forevermore. This means that, at any future time, someone can take you to task if they feel you've wronged them in any way.

Just to clarify from the outset - slander is oral and libel is in writing. Your book or books may be libelous (I hope not) but they will not be slanderous (not unless you read aloud an offending passage from them). Many people mix the two up, incorrectly thinking they're interchangeable although it is perfectly possible to be guilty of both. From a legal compensatory standpoint, libel is the big one and to be hauled up for it can land you in some serious trouble.

I actually got the inspiration for this particular article from the suggestions of a 'Writing Guru' whom I'm clearly not going to mention (for fear of falling foul of my own advice) who has been recommending scouring a certain film review site, taking the plot of a popular film, changing a few elements and then packaging it up as a new story. Anyone thinking that this is as simple as it sounds should consider what happened to Men At Work and their song 'Down Under' which, it was found, infringed the copyright of Kookaburra, a song released nearly 50 years earlier.

At one point they were being threatened with having to repay about half of their profits from the song made over the previous six years although a judge later reduced this to 5% but to be an ongoing obligation.

The main issue here (from a book's perspective) is that Men At Work was released 30 years before the court case. In other words, just because your book's been out for a year or more, does not mean that you're safe. While it's fair to say that (as per the court's ruling), a retrospective claim for damages made right back to its release date might well fail, a claim that goes back 5 to 10 years has a good chance of succeeding if you are found guilty.

That's a lot of royalties and money which you may well have spent or got tied up in something. In any case, it's not a position you want to be in.

Probably needless to say, I think that merely choosing a site like Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB and then 'ripping off' a story is not only bad form, it's also verging on the suicidal.

There are a limited number of storylines (Boy meets Girl, Crime and Punishment, Ripping Yarn etc) and you aren't going to come up with an original concept because it's all been covered. However, people buy books for the way in which the story's told, the craft of the author, their usage of language and images etc so nil desperandum. By all means use IMDB et al for ideas, for market research, and for direction but don't make the mistake of thinking that you won't incur the wrath of a team of hot-shot lawyers if you come up with stories such as 'Gone With The Breeze', 'Superduperman' or 'Pirates of the Mediterranean'.

But, and I'm talking about IMDB in particular now, not only are you picking a fight with a film company and an author, you're also risking the ire of Amazon who actually own IMDB. This puts you under fire from all directions and also leaves you nursing a ticking petard.

Now, I've got this great idea for a children's book about a Kookaburra sitting in a tree ....

Clive West is author of The Road and also Hobson's Choice. He's a strong advocate of originality and not becoming yet another sheep or any creature which can be lead by the nose.

1 comment: