Steal This Idea!

CopypastaEverybody does it. What are Hollywood screenwriters and producers if not a sleek band of rapacious idea-highwaymen and -women, constantly on the prowl for the unpillaged concept, the unpludered notion?

Now it’s your turn.

Yes, you, too, can join this elite cadre of concept-ninja, and obtain ideas the old-fashioned way; rip them off.

Come, and follow me into this den of thieves, where we will stealthily observe their guarded and closely-held methods.

Thumb Your Nose at John Law

Let’s discuss those hairsplitting legalities, for those of you unfamiliar with them.

Copyright law, as you may know, is the writer’s friend. It prevents others from making money from our sweat and blood, unless we, the diligent scribes, get our freakin’ cut. Business is business, right?

However, copyright law only goes so far, and then, like the edge of a tall cliff with a particularly nasty drop-off, abruptly stops. This point is clearly demarcated; for your benefit and elucidation, copyright law says that it only protects the manifestation of an idea, not the idea itself. In other words, a screenplay is protected, but not a 25-words-or-less logline.

A perfect example of this is the excessive Hollywood copy-cat-ism of the last several years. In 1998, two movies were released in a row by different studios about large spatial bodies about to obliterate life on earth (Armageddon and Deep Impact), and previous to that, in 1997, two movies released in a row were about volcanic eruptions (Volcano and Dante’s Peak). When will it stop? It won’t. Because stealing is fun — and can be very profitable.

Ideas Grow on Trees

A great source for ideas is your local newspaper. Truth is, after all, stranger than fiction.

Top Gun, for example, was based upon a magazine article, and the writer of that article, and probably the magazine, were presumably paid a fee for its use. But hey, why pay for something you can get for free?

The trick in using public source material for your script is that facts surrounding an incident need to be public knowledge of the kind easily gleaned from standard sources, such as newspapers and television. Thus, dramatizations of real events, such as the O.J. Simpson trial and the Long Island Lolita shooting, can be made (and were) without any payments to the individuals involved. If you utilize private information gleaned from inside sources, such as friends or family members of people enmeshed in a newsworthy event, then this type of personal detail typically cannot be used without permission of the parties involved. This is why any script dealing with public figures absolutely needs to be run past a lawyer, which any studio or production entity involved in such a project automatically does so. And if anybody knows how to legally steal things, it’s a lawyer.

A better way to go, rather than worrying about purchase of rights and legal hassles, is to incorporate elements of public stories into your own work. Such petty theft you might call “idea shoplifting.” Using actual events or elements from them is a great technique to jumpstart your own creative process.

In issue #13 of John Marr’s cult magazine, Murder Can Be Fun (the “Death at Disneyland” issue), he describes a fringe pulp author of the 1920’s through 40’s, Harry Keeler, who used an advanced form of this technique to create his own brand of wacky mystery novel. Over the years, Keeler collected a massive archive of article clippings. To begin a novel, he would randomly pull items from his files. He would then devise a convoluted plot that involved every one of the elements discussed in the articles. As a result, his stories were a fairly loopy brand of unique fiction.

A similar, ultra-referential technique is Quentin Tarantino’s mainstay, although French semioticians refer to it as bricolage (apparently French for “robbing someone blind”), which is defined as a postmodern pastiche of cultural, artistic, and cinematic ideas. But what do they know? Remember, they think Jerry Lewis is funny.

Plagiarism is Your Friend

All of the above is minor stuff compared to the next category of screenplay-scamming. And somehow, it sounds too much like work, which is the nemesis of all thieves.

Why not do what the big players do, and steal from the best? Yeah, I’m talking about literature.

For Clueless, as an example, screenwriter/director Amy Heckerling used the plot of Jane Austen’s Emma. What’s Austen gonna do — sue her? But it’s all perfectly legal. First of all, Emma has long been a public domain work. That means that anyone, anywhere can do an adaptation of the novel, print new copies of the book, or stick pages of the work to their bodies with clotted cream while shouting excerpts from the text as a piece of public performance art. Jane, being long dead, doesn’t really need the cash.

But think of it — reams of moldering literature (that nobody in our woefully illiterate society reads anymore) are just waiting for you to revive even a small part of them. Writers like Melville, Dumas, Hardy, and Brontë have already done the really difficult work of plotting the story for you. Now you can just change the names, location, and century of the work, and claim it as your own. And no one can stop you! (Insert evil laugh here.)

Stealing Fire from the Gods

Some of the best sources of public domain narrative to claim for yourself are mythology and fairy tales. Disney animation regularly earns income equivalent to a South American country with this method. Hercules, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty — money, money, money!

One of my favorite successful fairy tale adaptations is the movie Freeway, (Reese Witherspoon’s breakout feature) which was a brilliant riff on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.

If you’ve never really read much in area of myth and folklore (you call yourself a writer? Shame! May Joseph Campbell haunt you), then you’ll quickly learn that it all has been done before. Just knowing this liberates you from having to actually be creative.

Blatant Larceny

And now for the advanced method for those with particularly mean lawyers on their side — just take what you want.

A perfect example of an infamously botched heist surrounded the Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America. The producers had already agreed to pay newspaper columnist Art Buchwald a percentage of the net profits of the film for the use of his idea. Ostensibly this wasn’t a theft, but an outright purchase of Buchwald’s concept. Yet when time came to pony up, through the voodoo of Hollywood accountancy, Paramount declared that the film hadn’t actually made any money, specifically net profit (although it grossed over $300 million worldwide).

In How the Movie Wars Were Won by John W. Cones, he notes that:

“(Art Buchwald’s attorney) . . . filed a thirty-three page complaint against Paramount, charging a litany of misdeeds: breach of contract, tortious denial of existence of contract, breach of good faith and fair dealing, breach of fiduciary duty, common law fraud, constructive fraud, negligent misrepresentation, conversion, constructive trust and negligence. Thirteen causes of action in all — a smorgasbord of legal theories to describe…a callous, calculated act of corporate cover-up of literary theft. The script for the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America had allegedly been based on a treatment submitted earlier by Art Buchwald and his producer.

Although Buchwald and his attorneys finally won their case, Cones further notes that:

“The plaintiffs in the Buchwald v Paramount case were awarded only $900,000 in damages, $150,000 for writer Art Buchwald and $750,000 for producer Alain Bernheim. Thus, even though the plaintiffs won on the important substantive issues in the case (at the trial level), their damage award did not even cover the attorney fees and court costs. Therefore it is difficult to conclude that the plaintiffs won and the studio lost in every respect. In addition, there is little evidence to suggest (aside from the hyperbole contained in Pierce O’Donnell’s own book) that the celebrated case has actually resulted in any significant changes in the way the major studio/distributors conduct their business.”

See! Crime does pay! (Especially when you’re rich, speaking of O.J.)

When Disney made The Lion King, their stated model of departure was Hamlet (what’s Shakespeare gonna do — sue them?) Yet many fans of Japanese animation pointed out that the story bore an uncanny resemblance to a 1960’s Japanese comic book about a valiant white lion cub, called Jungle Emperor Leo, and the animation series based upon it, called Kimba, the White Lion Cub.

In an open letter to Disney by cartoonist Machiko Satonaka, she points out that:

“The basic story of a Prince cast out to return as the hero King after his father is killed, is only the beginning of a long list of parallels. There is the eye-scarred, black-maned villainous Uncle backed by hyenas, the chattering bird friend, the wise baboon, the promotional shot of the jutting rock, the father lion in the clouds talking to his son, the stony wilderness habitat, insect eating carnivores, even the names Kimba and Simba are strikingly similar. I don’t need to go on.”

Some of the character designs even seemed to pay homage to the artwork of Kimba’s creator, the great Tezuka Osamu (who also created Astro Boy, and who had died a few years before the film was made). Naturally, Disney’s media flacks swore on the name of Walt’s frozen corpse that no such plagiarism occurred, even though many of their animators were avowed fans of Tezuka’s work. But you be the judge.

Hollywood Wants You to Do It

It seems that in every pitch session, screenwriters are encouraged to frame their ideas in term of other films. They’ll say their script is “Die Hard on a train,” “Lethal Weapon in a hair salon,” or “Godzilla in a nursery school.” Writers know that studio execs don’t read books, so that they have to explain their ideas in terms of high-grossing films made in the last three years. And what executives love more than anything is a good rip-off. Like all businessmen, they prefer to capitalize on ideas which have already proven to be money-makers. Why should they risk $35 million on an untried idea? That would require imagination, which if they had, they would be screenwriters, not executives.

So why not join the fun? Just pack a pen, your latex gloves, and your lock picks, and participate in the time-honored writers’ tradition of literary cat burglary.