Creating an animated film based on a book

'Is it legal', 'can I do this' type questions and discussions.
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Creating an animated film based on a book

Post by Banacek »


I'm considering creating an animated film of one sort or another, based on a book I love. The book itself is of course copyrighted, so I assume if I made a film with the same title, characters, plot etc, I would soon run into trouble.

My question is, how much ought I to depart from a pure copy in order to remain on safe legal ground?

For example, if I changed the title, names of characters etc, but kept a similar basic plot, would that be enough? It is a science fiction book, so ought I to deviate from the book's descriptions of alien worlds etc?

I apologise if my question seems stupid or vague - and I realise there are no concrete rules one way or another - I suppose I am hoping for a broad insight into how the law is generally applied in such cases. I have found it hard to gain a sense of the situation, as my film would, in one sense, be an entirely new work - but in another sense somewhat derivative. I hope you get a sense of my quandary, and perhaps could offer a few pointers.

Many Thanks, and I look forward to any help you are able to give

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Post by AndyJ »

Hi Banacek,
I assume we are talking about UK copyright law.
The law says it is infringement to copy a substantial part of a copyright work. Substantiality is usually measured in qualitative terms and would normally apply to the essential part(s) or spirit of the first work. So quite often using the same plot but with utterly different characters could be OK especially if the second work was in a different genre (say a tragedy re-worked as a comedy) and the plot was fairly typical of its type. That of course is not the same thing as producing substantially the same work in a different format, much as you propose by making an animated film of a book, which would definitely risk infringing if you failed to make sufficient changes.
17 Infringement of copyright by copying.
(1) The copying of the work is an act restricted by the copyright in every description of copyright work; and references in this Part to copying and copies shall be construed as follows.
(2) Copying in relation to a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work means reproducing the work in any material form.
This includes storing the work in any medium by electronic means.
As I often point out here, the test you should apply is: why do you want to use this particular story in the first place? If it is because the story (ie the plot) is so good and you want people to recognise that your work is derived from the book, then that indicates that you may infringe because you are effectively plagiarising another's work. However if you can still fulfil your aim by altering the plot to include elements from other stories in the same genre or just from your own imagination, then clearly your new work would have a high degree of originality, and very little of the substance of the original work(s). A number of academics have argued that there are only a finite number of plots (for instance here), and so keeping your plot generic, rather than specific to the story your wish to use as the basis for your film, will greatly reduce the chance of your work infringing the book.
If you have the time to spare, take a look through this court case for an insight into how the courts tend to analyse this kind of allegation of infringement: Baigent v Random House [2006] EWHC 719 (Ch). Although this case went on to the Court of Appeal, the main points are covered in the High Court trial.
Advice or comment provided here is not and does not purport to be legal advice as defined by s.12 of Legal Services Act 2007
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