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Q&A

Do writers copy other writers?

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Good artists copy; great artists steal.

This famous Picasso quote often reminds me that the best artworks are rather a mix of many other artworks instead of something completely new. Walt Disney made a new version of old fairytales, as Steve Jobs mixed all the previous technologies into one beautiful thing.

Having this in mind, I was curious whether I am the only one who is copying my most favourite writers like Garcia Marquez or Haruki Murakami and stealing some of their phrases to come up with the best writing?

Do you also mix your own writing style with works of other writers?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/35560. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Well, first of all, Picasso never said it. Please see, for example, this investigation which could find no evidence to suggest Picasso ever said this. In fact, the earliest quote that could be found to resemble the non-Picasso quote was by W. H. Davenport Adams, who wrote "That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil." T. S. Elliot expanded on this further much later in “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”:

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

Regardless of the fact that Picasso never said it, the meaning behind it is likely far more in line with what T. S. Elliot says here. It shouldn't be taken as literally stealing someone's work and claiming it as your own. The fact is, what you write has likely been written before. It is a great writer who can stand on the shoulders of giants and make something unique from what has gone before. The concept of "stealing" in this sense is not to be taken literally at all, but is used to convey the idea that poets, musicians, artists and writers know the history of their craft, and are able to take it and transcend it and do it better than those that did it before them.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/35581. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Stealing is bad. Quite aside from it being illegal, what satisfaction would you draw from presenting someone else's work? It's not yours, the praise it gets is not to you.

Being inspired by another author, on the other hand, is good. A work of art should inspire. And there's nothing wrong with deliberately going and seeking out the particular inspiration you need. If I'm writing war and I can't quite get the feeling of it, I might reread a bit of All Quiet on the Western Front. If I'm writing a love scene, I would go to a book that has one of those, written well. It's not about analytically looking at how somebody else did this. It's about finding that feeling I'm looking for, and then using my own words to make it happen for my characters. The other books help me find that mindset I'm looking for, and I read enough to know where to look for a particular inspiration.

Not just individual scenes either. If I set a story in a particular time and place, I'd read some of what was written then and there, to get the feeling of the particular turn of phrase that matches the setting, the way people thought. For instance, if I were writing something Victorian, I'd look for phrases like "by and by". It's almost a subconscious thing - I read enough of this (whatever I choose this to be), it's easier for me to have my characters talk that way, create the plot that way, etc. So, to continue with the Victorian example, I'd deliberately read Jane Austen, looking to get some particular feeling, I'd be inspired by her style, but I wouldn't steal her words. I'd find my own.

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You sound like a perfect candidate for studying Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces (AKA the Monomyth). It is not so much that people steal or blatantly copy as it is writers draw upon known story tropes or elements from multiple sources (mythology, cinema, comics, etc) that no one story is truly original. Do writers copy other writers? I would answer that with a question of "Have you ever watched The Lion King and Hamlet?" The Lion King is a reinterpretation.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/37495. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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I do not, to my knowledge ever. I am not a lawyer but I believe copyright applies: If the sentence or fragment you want to use is original (meaning it cannot be found in multiple sources or from a time prior to its publication) then that author holds the "copyright", and you are violating it. This has been held up in court for even three notes of a song ("My Sweet Lord").

Further, I think it has been held that using it in a commercial work is not "fair use", that is for instructional or educational purposes, or an example.

For example, I would not use the phrase "You can't handle the truth!" in a commercial work (but think it is okay in this instructional message).

IMO (and perhaps the law's opinion) you are stealing somebody else's creative work for the purpose of making a profit. Finding the phrase in several venues is one way to show that specific attribution of its origin is indeterminate, thus nobody can own the copyright. Even if you cannot, the court might hold that the phrase is not original enough to prevent other authors from stumbling upon it. (edit: Or if many sources are found, I believe the court may hold the copyright was not sufficiently protected and has become public domain.)

But that does not sound like the case here.

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