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Blurred Lines (or, Creating a new vibe)

This may sound a little off-piste, but stick with me.

Recently, Pharrell "Happy" Williams got convicted of breaching copyright on a Marvin Gaye song (so maybe not so happy now), on his song "Blurred Lines". This verdict was reached even though most of the notes/tune weren't the same: he got done for copying the "vibe" of the song.

I'm not enough of a muso to argue the rights and wrongs of the verdict so I'm not even going to try. What interested me is that if music copyright has just been blown that wide open, then there seems to be little to stop The White Stripes being sued by the Stones and Led Zep (who will in turn be sued by a raft of dead Mississippi bluesmen); Marillion can finally be sued by Genesis; Tori Amos will be forced to give her earnings to Kate Bush; and every country musician in the world can be sued by Willie Nelson, etcetera and so on. Blurred Lines indeed.

But will it spill over into writing? Writers are always trying to create new worlds for their ideas and characters to inhabit. We're all aware to some degree of what has gone before. We're not allowed to steal characters and plots from other books and quite rightly too. That's intellectual property. You can't just decide that your fantasy world is called "Middle-Earth" and have a magic ring meets volcano plot-line (and it still stuns me somewhat that Sword of Shannara has escaped copyright censure).

Many, many books are in the style (i.e. "vibe") of other authors, though. Modern fantasy owes massive debts to the ground-breakers like J R R Tolkien, C S Lewis, Fritz Leiber and others. We all have our influences. It is difficult to write anything that won't have an experienced reviewer saying "it's fantasy in the style of [insert appropriate name]". Perhaps we won't be so keen on such comparisons if they as the prelude to a law suit!

I think most writers write what is within them: the stories they have conjured inside their heads. I'm also quite willing to believe there are also some cold-blooded copyists out there, scanning the bestsellers lists to see what ideas are hot, then copying those concepts. Waves of books are released on a certain theme within short periods of time, to cash in on this year's Harry Potter-Twilight-Hunger Games-whatever. Presumably in any given year boy wizard, vampire and teen-gladiator manuscripts get written, but the volume of such books increases if that's the hot new thing.  Perhaps publishers are the leads in this more overtly than writers themselves, reading the trends and selecting on that basis.

We writers must choose what to spend our limited time upon: as I've mentioned in a previous blog, I don’t believe it's writing style or minor plot choices that get a book across the line: it's the concept. If a publisher likes the concept and thinks it'll sell, they've got editors to help you knock the rest into shape. So we've got to pick a solid, sell-able concept. Something which is currently hot is always more likely to get the thumbs-up from a publisher than a risky new idea unless you are a continuous bestselling author.

For a writer deciding what to put energy into, the multitude of trends will possibly play a part. Personally, I try to divorce myself from that, by not reading reviews or bestsellers or even going into bookstores very often, which is sadly getting easier and easier as they trend toward non existence. I want my ideas to be as purely mine as possible.

Or at least, I want them to have their own vibe!

See you next time!


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