In a WSJ interview on the subject of old typewriters, science fiction legend Harlan Ellison conspicuosly works in a claim that Cormac McCarthy's The Road is ripped off from A Boy and his Dog.
A friend said "oh gee, you should sell it, they sold Cormac McCarthy's typewriter." And I said, "yeah, Cormac McCarthy who ripped off my story "A Boy and His Dog" to do "The Road." I said how much did they get $20?" And he said "they got $220,000 because they gave it to charity and I said "that's nice."
Clearly a joke, right?
Jason Sanford explains why it might not be a joke for McCarthy or the producers of the motion picture based on his novel. Ellison famously sued the producers of The Terminator over the use of ideas also present in his stories, which earned a payoff and director James Cameron's description of him as a "parasite who can kiss my ass."
The key point all authors and creators should remember is ideas are not protected by copyright. As the U.S. copyright office states, "Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work."
Plagiarism is a serious charge and I wish Ellison wouldn't throw the term around like it is nothing. Simply because an author has written on an idea Ellison once wrote about does not equal theft.
The problem, practically speaking, is that it's often cheaper to pay someone off than defend yourself in court. This creates a huge incentive to litigate that goes from Ellison-style cantankerousness all the way up to the RIAA's industrial-scale shakedown racket.
Sanford notes the WSJ's own reference to Ellison's infamous lawsuit is vague: "he penned Soldier, which James Cameron drew from for The Terminator." He sees in this the pernicious effects of abusing copyright law. It doesn't just tax culture, but rewrites the history of creative inspiration to the advantage of litigators.
Still, Ellison's actually done the world a favor here. I love his work, and like many SF readers feel vindication in the modern appreciation of his literary merits. But his new comparison finally cleared something up for me: just how differently a good writer and a great one express similar ideas.