Last month, one of several lawsuits against director James Cameron was thrown out of court. Not so much thrown, actually, as fired out of a cannon at the alleged victim.
Cameron is currently the target of at least three more lawsuits, all claiming that he cribbed the ideas for his blockbuster Avatar from their novels or unproduced screenplays.
Few of these suits have much chance of success. The authors play up some similarities in their works - Soldier on an alien planet! Giant rainforests! Revolts against mining companies! - but closer reading usually reveals shared generic ideas.
There's no protection for simple plot and character elements. You say your book about a teenaged vampire in love is being ripped off by my soon-to-be-published epic masterpiece Count Dylan of Westside High? Well, get in line. Because clearly, both of us are ripping off Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, who was also obviously borrowing wholesale from The Vampire Diaries by L.J. Smith, whose author was teen-ing up Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice, which was a spin on Stephen King's Salem's Lot and George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream, which were based on Bram Stoker's Dracula (the book, not the movie with Keanu Reeves), which in turn was ripping off Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and Paul Feval's Vampire City, which were inspired by John Polidori's The Vampyre, which was an homage to Lord Byron.
Make your cheque out to the dead English poet, if you want to put an end to it.
As the above examples show (and I could have included a dozen other branches of vampire/supernatural/gothic/romantic literature, movies, and role-playing games) ideas spawn more ideas.
Sometimes it's just the eitgeist that hits authors. or example, do I know that tephenie Meyer has read he Vampire Diaries? No, I do ot. In fact, I think it's entire-y plausible that her vampire omance love triangle was created independently of L.J. Smith's.
For another franchise, look at J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. Rowling has famously been sued about as frequently as Cameron, and often by people who believe that the use of the word "muggle" grants them some kind of magical primacy.
Who has not sued Rowling? Well, she's not been taken to court by Ursula K. Le Guin, or by the sadly late Diana Wynne Jones. Why not?
Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea tells the tale of a young wizard, powerful and born to a non-magical family, who barely survives an early encounter with dark magic, trains at a wizarding school, and goes on to confront and defeat the foe that nearly destroyed him.
Sound like Harry Potter? Not if you've read both series. The tone and setting are worlds apart. (If you haven't read it, go pick up Earthsea today!)
Likewise, Jones has written about the similarities of her Chrestomanci books to Harry Potter, when asked by young fans. She did see some similarities. But she did not reach for the telephone to call her lawyer.
"Once a book is published, out in the world, it is sort of common property, for people to take ideas from and use, and I think this is what happened to my books," Jones wrote.
There is theft and plagiarism, but much more common is inspiration, the moment when a writer puts down a book, holds the idea in his or her mind, and says, wait a moment, what if this happened instead?
Stories breed stories. They're meant to. The canon of literature is an edifice built upon itself, from the Bible to The Odyssey, all the way up to the latest doorstopping novels. firstname.lastname@example.org