His this plot/idea protected under copyright?

'Is it legal', 'can I do this' type questions and discussions.
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His this plot/idea protected under copyright?

Post by wap22uk »

Hi there,

I have a question regarding copyright law/ copyright infringement when it comes to literary content.

I'm currently writing a screenplay for a shortfilm but during my research I noticed that there is already a piece of work (a short story published and still under copyright protection) with the same idea. I know that you can't copyright the idea as such unless it is very specific.

So here is the plot:

The protagonist finds out that his wife is cheating on him. He then challenges his wife's lover to a duel with pistols. He then contenplates about his one most likely death. Eventually he runs away (from the duel) and feels terrible about it as his reputation is damaged only to be told by his friends that his opponent also did not show up at the duel and therefore his honour is still intact. (plot twist)

All other elements in my version are different: Different characters, names, places and and even historical times, dialogue ect.

My question: is that plot specific enough to be copyrighted/meaning protected by copyright? and therefore would I need to get permission from the creator/copyright owner?

thanks for any opinion and help.
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Re: His this plot/idea protected under copyright?

Post by AndyJ »

Hi wap22uk,

As you say, ideas alone are not subject to copyright. It is the original way in which the idea is expressed which garners protection. Within the European Union member states, consideration of the originality of the expression of a work is based on whether it represents the spirit or personality of the author. So, as long as you composed your screenplay entirely using your own chioce of words and sentence construction etc, there should be no overlap in the two expressions of the basic idea. In any case, the idea of a duel in works of literature is not uncommon (see this book by a Cambridge academic) and so the only thing which distinguishes this particular version is the fact that both parties failed to show up. That is hardly an outstanding twist, and I'm sure that further research would probably show it had been used on several other occasions beside the example you have found.

That is not to say that once you have made your version public, this particular writer won't say that you have stolen his idea. But from what you say about the differences in your story, I don't think a claim of infringement will be an issue. This is something the courts have had consider many times over the years (here's a more famous example), and so, in the UK at least, we have reasonable certainty about how they approach and decide such matters. In the USA, the way that the courts within the various judicial districts operate independently of each other means it can be rather more of a lottery over there.
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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