All Rise, The Court is in Session

Song of the day: Justice by Rev Theory

This month is a buzz of newsworthy stories. The latest being the outcome of a lawsuit filed by an unpublished romance writer against Harlequin.

In a nutshell, the writer claimed that her story was stolen by an author of Harlequin and published by Harlequin. The plaintiff claimed that the Harlequin author was a judge in a Romance Writers of America approved and/or sponsored contest, had read the entry and synopsis, and copied the work as her own. The plaintiff pointed out that there were over 40 similarities to the published, financially successful book and that it was blatant plagiarism of her creative expression.

You can read the claim here.

The judge handling the case disagreed and dismissed the case. The judge, in part, says:

“The similarities that [the plaintiff] asserts are either stock elements of romance novels or plot elements that naturally flow from the broad themes that the two works share with other works in the same genre. The two works share common tropes that are typical of, and generic to, the romance novel genre. A beautiful woman and a handsome, wealthy man fall in love, become estranged, find themselves alone together in close quarters, have a passionate reunion, rediscover their love and commitment, and begin a new life together. These are familiar plot elements in the romance genre. Many of the similarities accompanying these tropes in the works are scenes à faire. They describe similarly choreographed scenes of love, estrangement, rediscovered passion, and recommitted love. The details of these scenes are similar not because of infringement, but because they flow logically from the plot elements.”

You can read the document here. Or you can read the condensed version here.

Getty RF Justice

The author must have felt truly infringed upon. Unfortunately, her actions wreaked undue havoc on an innocent author’s life and likely put a death knell on her own career. Should she seek publication through a publisher, she will probably to be seen as a pariah.

The purpose of my blog is not to chastise this author or take sides, but to point out this is a lesson for us all. A plot, theme, idea, generic characteristics and details cannot be copyrighted. Not even zombie-loving Highlanders with secret babies.

The other issue at hand is now many published authors are reluctant to offer help to newbies still green and learning their craft. There is a fear that they, too, may be accused of stealing. They no longer want to judge contests. This in a time when finding qualified judges is difficult. Published authors are wary of offering mentorship and advice.

What a shame.

The romance genre, with all that amazing talent, is one place where authors share their knowledge freely. There is camaraderie and a drive to help peers succeed. One good turn deserves another. Paying it forward. However you want to describe it, romance authors learn from each other. Judging not only helps others with their craft, it strengthens your own writing. It’s invaluable to both parties involved. I’d hate to see that disappear.

Instances such as this lawsuit are rare. I would encourage published writers to be informed—know your rights, act accordingly. But don’t be so gun-shy that you deny others help. Remember you were once wet behind the ears, too. Your hard work and talent had some guidance and encouragement along the way from a writer more successful than you.

Do you agree or disagree? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.

27 Responses to All Rise, The Court is in Session

  1. I don’t know–I once went to a movie and, in the trailers before, there was an ad for a new movie releasing in a year or two and, in that ad, was a scene almost exact to a scene from one of my released novels…the movie never came out nor was I able to find out anything about the movie after that but if it had, i would have watched to see if more of it was like my novel. I continue to watch for those similarities. However, there is nothing saying that two people in two different areas of the world can’t come up with the same idea at the same time…I know one of my best friends and I do that all the time–can’t think if its scary because I’m thinking like her or because she’s thinking like me! I’m apt to believe my fear is because I’m thinking like her. She disagrees and considers it the opposite.


  2. jbrayweber says:

    Speaking of movies, even Hollywood is re-canning the same stories over and over. Notice the rise in fairy tale movies and the all the action sequels. Not that I’m complaining. And not that they aren’t making money hand over fist. I write pirate romances. I’ve been accused of writing B versions of the Pirate of the Caribbean movies. *snort* I guess because pirates are involved. *shrug*

    Annette, close friends do tend to think alike because, well, you’re close. You are i tune with each other, alike in your thoughts, in what you enjoy, in what you imagine. It’s only natural. And besides, great minds think alike!


  3. maw25 says:

    I think that its a sad state of affairs when authors are suing authors. What happens when you co-write a book with an author an the partnership dissolves. What happens then?

    Harlequin has taken some direct hits lately, too. What is up with that? The lawsuit that some of their authors filed still isn’t done.

    I judge contests because I like to read what everyone else has come up with. Trust me, I’m too stupid to steal. Most people know that I don’t have that vivid of an imagination.



  4. jbrayweber says:

    LOL! Marika! You are too funny.
    I do believe that judging contests make us better writers. We are forced to look with a critical eye and in doing so become more objective and aware with our own writing.
    As for Harlequin taking hits, it’s a changing industry. The large publishers are no longer the all-powerful kings. Authors are finding they have more freedoms, options, and rights. With that, they are not bound and do not have to bend at the will of the kings, so to speak. That said, frivolous lawsuits are not good for anyone involved. It’s sad really.


  5. Thanks for your post, Jenn. I once read a book about plagiarism, “Stolen Words” by Thomas Mellon, which I highly recommend. In it, he clarifies the legal definition of plagiarism. It’s a matter of expression, NOT ideas.

    An author can rip off ideas right and left. No matter how dreadful this might be ethically or artistically, it doesn’t qualify as plagiarism in the legal sense. But if an author uses the actual words of someone else’s works, even if the original ideas aren’t present, it’s plagiarism.

    Obviously this didn’t apply in the case you described. I doubt the plaintiff understood this. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have sued in the first place. At least, not if she were reasonably intelligent and sane.

    I recall a nasty plagiarism case during the 1990s. Janet Dailey, once the queen of cowboy romances, repeatedly ripped off passages in a couple of Norah Roberts novels. Since both authors had huge followings, someone was bound to discover the similarities. And talk about it.

    Dailey got in big trouble, legal and otherwise. She had to acknowledge and apologize for her plagiarism.

    That just about destroyed her career. Since then, none of the major publishers have had anything to do with her. Nowadays Roberts repeatedly tops the bestseller lists, while Dailey stumbles along with little-known novels from third-rate publishers and hardly any readers. Sad story.


  6. jbrayweber says:

    It’s quite amazing what people who knowingly plagiarize thinks they can get away with. It’s almost as if they are either thumbing their noses or waiting to see how long it will take to get caught.

    Just say no to plagiarism.

    Thanks, Mary Anne.


  7. […] All Rise, The Court is in Session. […]


  8. The judges ruling, in my opinion, was correct and fair. In dealing with any genre (Romance, Mystery, Thriller, name your own), there are going to be certain similarities and tropes that remain the same. To scream ‘plagiarism’ is a huge step, and one monster of a mess to get into for both sides.

    It has happened to me twice. It stings like crazy (to put it mildly), but the reality is writers who have never met are going to have similar ideas and concepts; it is the *execution* of those concepts that makes the difference.

    Best example I ever heard was a similar conversation at a conference one time after dinner, when someone pointed out, “Okay, who remembers ‘Hill Street Blues’?” Most of the people raised their hands. “So,” the writer went on, “following this logic, we can make a case that ‘Lethal Weapon’ ripped off ‘Hill Street Blues’, right?” Puzzled looks around the table. “Okay, ‘Hill Street’ had two characters, both cops, both detectives, one white one black, one precise and logical, the other a bit of a whack-job. Which is the basic premise of the ‘Lethal Weapon’ movies. ‘Hill Street’ was on TV first, so ‘Lethal Weapon’ must have ripped them off, right?”

    There was silence around the table as the example hit home. It’s going to happen, no matter what, but to take legal action is a major major step and rarely if ever justified.


  9. jbrayweber says:

    You are spot on, William. It’s going to happen. No matter how original you think your idea is, it’s been done. I remember you telling me about your circumstance. And, yeah, ouch. But what can you do?

    The Lethal Weapon/Hill Street Blues example is great. Thanks for sharing it.


  10. Wow- I read the actual legal document which contained a side by side comparison and I have to say the judge was correct in his ruling. The stories are vaguely similar but that’s about it. I also have to say many of the category novels are “vaguely” similar. When you publish a line of books that are so focused on one aspect (that being the relationship) there are bound to be comparisons.
    I can’t believe her legal representation didn’t know the law any better than they did! There is no line by line comparison only the broad strokes which can’t be owned. Sad because she will have a tough time publishing anything now unless she does it herself.


  11. jbrayweber says:

    Yes, Stacey. Category novels are much like templates of sorts. That’s what makes them category. As William said, it’s the execution of the stories that sets them apart. It’s quite sad that her representation even thought there was a case. And this misinformed author has, hopefully, learned a valuable, if not harsh and expensive, lesson. And she will be met with huge resistance should she try to find a publisher.


  12. girldrinkdrunk says:

    I’m suing McDonald’s because their coffee is too hot. I’m suing Disneyland because I got in a fist-fight with another mother at the teacup ride. I’m suing Musetracks because it’s Wednesday and there’s no sexy lawyer photo I can make an improper innuendo about…

    LIghten up you guys–the US graduates 40,000 new lawyers a year. Baby sharks gotta eat too…

    If only they’d eat each other or better yet, their awful clients…


  13. jbrayweber says:

    HAHAHAHAHA! Good luck suing MuseTracks, Kristen. I hear they are a bunch of broken, starving artists, with harldy a laptop to their names. 😀


  14. jeff salter says:

    I have to say I did find sev. points to be VERY coincidental … but I’m inclined to agree with the judge.
    I feel badly for the writer who saw a SIMILAR story make it to publication while her unfinished ms. languishes.
    It’s been a fear of mine that someone — whether through contests or other activities — sees one of my stories and decides to run with it on her/his own.
    Sure hope that never happens.


  15. jbrayweber says:

    I understand, Jeff. I’ve had some great ideas (at least I think they’re great) including a love story set in Pompeii and a romance series involving the four horsemen. Yup…someone else beat me to it. But, that shouldn’t stop me from writing MY stories. Unless we plagiarize, we can’t write the same novels. Our voices, our styles, our craft, is different.


  16. I agree with commenters above regarding this situation. I would go a step further and say that the plaintiff was a victim in at least two ways: 1) of her own hubris, envy, and greed (I would like to add stupidity, but that would be rude.) and 2) of legal representation that boarders on the negligent. I didn’t read far enough into the judge’s ruling to see what the financial consequences were for losing this suit, but it would not surprise me to find that Harlequin was awarded legal fees and court costs. This author has virtually ruined herself. I guess Mama was right after all. There must be something to that seven deadly sins thing!


  17. jbrayweber says:

    Agreed, Linda. Her legal counsel should have known better. Someone should have offered advice that would not have derailed her dreams and career.


  18. About a year ago, one of fairly new embers of a critique group I was in who had been writing for a while, but had just started putting her chapters up a few months before was distraught. A book with her same story line had just been published. She was about ready to can her whole book and start again. Fortunately we all had this discussion, and she continued on. This will happen and there is no way around it. Even names of characters (especially in historicals) will be close. The author who brought the suit would have been better served by a lawyer who knew his/her business and refused to file the case.


  19. jbrayweber says:

    Good to know your CP group kept her from making a mistake, Ella. Had I stopped writing about my pirates when the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out, I wouldn’t have four books published right now. I wouldn’t be nearly done with my fifth. We just need to soldier on. 🙂


  20. Suzan Harden says:

    There can be people in different areas of the country that will come up with virtually the same idea without anyone stealing anything.

    A few years ago, I worked really, REALLY hard to develop an outline for the fifth book in my urban fantasy series. I walked out of Indiana Jones 4, nearly in tears. The only thing different from my plot and the movie was that the third person was my heroine’s father, not her son.

    It doesn’t mean I should have sued Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.


  21. jbrayweber says:

    Ugh, so sorry Suzan. You suing GL & SS is about as ridiculous as this unpubbed writer suing Harlequin. But there is no doubt, it really, really sucks. I know far too many people where something similar has happened to them. Though we can feel hurt, jaded, and disappointed, it might just be a matter of timing. And it’s always a matter of how we create and apply our stories.


  22. jeff salter says:

    Not sure if somebody else already mentioned this, but perhaps this aspiring writer was merely hoping for a large settlement offer. Perhaps she thought Harlequin, hoping to quell negative publicity, would settle out of court with some big bucks.
    I know some attorneys take cases with every hope (and often expectation) that they WON’T go to trial or see a judge. In other words: a bluff … a shakedown for cash.


  23. jbrayweber says:

    Well then, she deserves what she gets, if that’s the case. But I’d like to think that she was a misguided soul who will try desperately to reinvent herself as a respected author through her craft. Under a new pen name, of course.


  24. I was trying real hard not to go there, Jeff, (working on being less cynical… can you imagine?!?!?) but you have a very valid point. As Kristen points out, “Baby sharks gotta eat, too,” but ye gads. I wonder if perhaps the author got cranked, but the lawyer pushed it for – as you say – ‘cash for peace’.

    Personally, I would not be surprised in the slightest.


  25. jbrayweber says:

    I always try to give the benefit of the doubt. But, like you Will, I wouldn’t be surprised.


  26. maurineh09 says:

    I was going to bring up the point of the ambulance-chasing lawyer, but Jeff beat me to it. I’ve read her “similarities” and have come to the conclusion she must not read much. You could say the same about 50 books or more I’ve read over the years.

    Also, in the court document, under Background, the second sentence says, “It (How to Love a Billionaire) is still unfinished and published.” Are they saying it’s published? Or did they mean “unpublished?”


  27. jbrayweber says:

    Her actions are baffling, Maureen. As far as the document, it is my understanding the manuscript was not finished and she is still unpublished to date.


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