How Do We Walk the Line Between Plagiarism and Direct Inspiration?

'The Big Lebowski'Credit: Gramercy Pictures
What movies and TV shows inspire you? 

Inspiration is one of those buzzwords in all artistry that I think probably gets overused. Nevertheless, I find myself looking to be inspired day in and day out. What material will spark my creative juices and get me excited to chase down the next spec script? What worlds will I find so enthralling they'll lead me to write a new pilot? 

Here's an even bigger question. With all these movies and TV shows out there, do any original ideas still exist? Has everything been done before? 

I think King Solomon once said, "There's nothing new under the sun." That was supposed to be the wisest person ever. 

Okay, so with that kind of thinking, how can you be successful as a filmmaker? How can you express your ideas in ways that feel unique, true, and... well... original? 

Check out this video from Sean Alami where he discusses how important it is to understand that there is a fine line between plagiarism and originality. And that if we don't have the right mindset we could easily fall on the wrong side of that line.

Then, let's chat after. 

How Do We Walk the Line Between Plagiarism and Direct Inspiration?

When it comes to coming up with ideas for movies and TV shows, one of my favorite things to do is just watch other TV shows and movies.

Then I imagine how I would spin that logline. How would I write a movie about chasing down the Ark of the covenant? How would my version of Breaking Bad look? Then I work backward from there. I change the items or characters or stakes, but that often becomes the way I look at my own voice in something I know is commercial. 

Of course, I'm not the only one who does this. Filmmakers like the Coen brothers have been known to riff on old plots and make them their own. Take into account The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski. Or even the idea of homaging screwball comedies in Intolerable Cruelty, or Greek literature with O' Brother Where Art Thou? One thing I think we can say about all these pieces is that they still feel wholly original, and of the Coens. 

So where does the fine line between that and plagiarism lie? 

Obviously, when it comes to art, I think you're fine taking the same plot beats, as long as your characters operate in a way that feels unique and of you. Plagiarism only happens when you directly steal someone's idea.

Like if your character gets the Ark of the covenant and is also a college professor with God and daddy issues. Then it kind of feels like a rip-off of a certain adventuring archaeologist.

No matter what, this boils down to what you have to say—your work should have something directly to say to the world. It doesn't matter if we've seen a situation or plot that's similar—what do you have to say about that plot? How is it different than the stories that have come before it? 

Take Get Out, Jordan Peele's masterpiece. It takes that sort of intoxicating Stepford Wives meets Guess Who's Coming to Dinner horror idea and makes it about race and assimilation. And it does it poetically, and where it says so much about society and the dangers of what we perceive to be allies. Again, originality is on display. 

I think new ideas are out there. Sure, humans have been telling stories for millennia, but that shouldn't dissuade you. It's all about what you have to say about the world, characters, and story. You are what makes an idea unique and interesting. Chase it down. 

Go get writing.      

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