RE: RARA-AVIS: Re: Recycling

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 10 Jul 2001

For the record, I was no longer asking about copying from self. I was just asking if work for hire applied to writing as well as to other areas of creation. It seems from your reply that there is.

On a tangent, how much of a work for hire is programmed for the hired writer? Do they really get a plot outline or just required character traits of the main characters? For instance, does the writer plot the Mike Shayne story he writes or does he simply script someone else's story? It's just a guess, but I'd guess that it's sometimes one, sometimes the other.

Which returns to the self-plagiarizing question. If they did come up with the plot themselves, why wouldn't they be tempted to employ that plot as part of a story about their own creation? For instance, McBain's recycled plot started as a PI story featuring drunk ex-PI Curt Cannon, but was used in an 87th Precinct police procedural novel featuring rookie cop Bert Kling. So why wouldn't Dennis Lynd (just hypothetical, I know of no such case) be tempted to use something he wrote about Mike Shayne in a novel of his own about Dan Fortune (as Michael Collins) or Paul Shaw (as Mark Sadler). In this case it'd even be the same sub-genre.

However, in this case the first was a work for hire. So this raises the legal question of the definition of copyright infringement -- is it the exact words or the plot? As is often noted, there are only a few plots, the art is in making one of those stock plots seem new. So how close would it have to be to be an infringement?

If you've read Gat's Nevsky novels, you know those plots were nearly identical to two McGees (Dreadful Lemon Sky and Green Ripper, if I remember correctly), even though the location was moved to Pittsburgh and the character was very different. Last Good Kiss by Crumley, for instance, owes a lot to Long Goodbye (basically an exploration of the subplot of Marlowe searching for Roger Wade), but I don't think anyone would argue this was plagiarism, but his nod to tradition before pushing it forward.

Of course, that's one of the fun things we do here, debating how original these books are.

And as I stated in an earlier note, beyond a slight abstract interest, I'm not much concerned with the legality of any of this. Instead, I am curious about what it reveals about a writer's development and writing practices.


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