I just read an article about Robin Thicke, a singer and songwriter, losing a law suit that awards millions of dollars to Marvin Gaye’s estate. The charge was that he “copied” a song that Gaye had written. In losing the suit, Thicke stated the obvious, “We’re all inspired by what comes before us, but I would never steal. I mean, did the first super-hero movie mean that nobody can ever make another super-hero movie?”
He makes a valid point. As a writer of action/adventure and mainstream novels, I know that I have been inspired by the writers I admire (and I also know the very popular ones who are hacks and make me nauseous). Obviously when I read words by those whom I believe are the finest wordsmiths around today, that inspires me to do better, I, also, would never “steal” another writer’s work. That is plagiarism and is not only unlawful, it is unethical. But just because Edgar Allen Poe wrote some of the first horror stories, does that mean that no one else can ever write a horror story? If it does, then Stephen King is in serious legal trouble. Just because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote some of the earliest mysteries does that mean that every author from Raymond Chandler to Dashiell Hammett to Elmore Leonard and beyond is a thief?
In the case of Robin Thicke there are only so many notes in music and no new ones are being created. And there is a finite number of ways they can be combined. Certainly today’s songs will echo some of the notes and rhythm of other songs. Same thing goes for words, except there are new ones creeping into the language each year. As far as stories go, there are schools of thought that there are only 11 story plots and some say that there are only 3. With those kinds of limitations, certainly some books will be an echo of those that have come before. It is only plagiarism if one “copies” directly somebody else’s work. Our current Vice President Biden is famous for stealing verbatim the speeches of others and claiming them as his own. That is theft. But to accidentally use a few words that someone else has written, is not stealing. And the same goes for music. Thicke is appealing the court’s, in my opinion, wrong decision. I hope he wins, for the sake of future artists.