Recently, a friend from the writing world, more specifically, the ghostwriting world, needed a bit of advice about a piece of work he did for a client. He wasn't sure what to do and neither did I. I decided, rather than give him my perspective only, I'd ask a few other writers what they thought. I discovered the answer was not as cut and dry as I originally thought and it got me to thinking about my own reputation as a writer.
Here's what happened. The writer in question, whom I do not personally know, wrote what we call a novella (30,000 words) for a client. The writer was the one who plotted the story, outlined the characters and basically did all the work including the title of the story. All the client did was request a story on a freelance website and he was hired, paid to do the story and delivered. The dilemma he faces is that he wants to know if he can rewrite the story by:-
1. Changing the main plot
2. Change the characters' names and add more characters
3. Change the setting
4. Develop the characters more
5. Add more 'meat' as he called it, to the story
6. Make the story into a novel
As far as this writer is concerned, the original will be nothing like the novel, he is just using it as a skeleton for his new story. He asked me if that was against some code of conduct as a writer. I had no idea what to tell him. The answers I got in my writer's group, ranged from no to yes, to giving advice on copyright, and advising how they could actually use the story without problems. Quite a few were against the idea and I can't really blame them. Initially, my first thought was, "hell no". However, when he outlined to me what he planned to do I thought differently.
As a ghostwriter, here is my take on the matter.
When a client hires you to do a story you can either negotiate with the client that the plot and theme belongs to you and you will only give rights to the story you provide, OR, you hand over all rights. Retaining the rights to the plot and characters mean that you can do a follow up on this story, or write a new story with said characters and plot and the client can do nothing about it, since you agreed to such. If the client believes he now owns the story, plot and characters by some unspoken agreement, then he owns them all.
Since the person wants to change the story, by rewriting the characters, plot, scenes and everything, wouldn't be safe to say that he is not violating any copyright or agreement with the client since the story (plot, characters and scenes) wont be the same?
There is no law that says one cannot use an idea to create a new one, so long as you don't copy the original story word for word. According to my friend, he is recycling stories he's written to make them into better stories. Personally, I never thought of that, but that is not copyright infringement.
On the ethics side, if the client realizes what he's done, it could mean he may gain a bad reputation for recycling clients' works. The odds may be slim that a client may pick his book up, but will that client recognize the story? If he is as good as I think he is at this, he may be able to rewrite the story in such way that she would never suspect that it was based on that original story.
Is that unethical? Well, that's left to open debate.
It is unethical to plagiarize and if you re-use a story AS IS, without making it different, you have plagiarized. Writing is an art, yet it's different. We all know that most articles and books are recycled from other articles and books. When we write an article about "heart disease", we research that article using already published sources. Is that copyright? No it's not. So long as the writer does not copy word for word, but using the rlevant infromation in their own words, then the article becomes original. I should know since I also write articles.
"There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages."
– Mark Twain, a Biography
Given that premise from Mark Twain, then it is left up to writer to decide if it's worth the trouble. As for me I hate going back to old stories. I hate editing much less rewriting, so there is no chance of that happening with me. But I would love to see the finished work and compare both of them before deciding on this one.
When I watch my dramas I get ideas on how I make a story better, or new ideas for stories. I sometimes get upset with the writer and think about I could make a drama better. It happens with books as well. We get inspiration from may sources. Is it copyright infringement if I watch a drama of people dying from a rare deadly disease and I write a book in another setting, era and new characters about the same disease?
It is something to think about isn't it?
Please feel free to give your thoughts in the comments. And please don't forget to share.