You’ve probably read about this already. But earlier this month, Urban Fantasy/Romance writer Sherrilyn Kenyon slapped YA author Cassandra Clare with a lawsuit.
The suit claims that copyright was violated when Clare used concepts that were originally under Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter novels, and used these in The Mortal Instruments. There are further claims that Kenyon approached her colleague some years back, in an effort to ensure that The Mortal Instruments franchise didn’t infringe on her own novels and sales.
Official word from Clare’s camp however, has since come out to refute those claims. Clare’s legal representation has asserted that Kenyon never contacted Clare. And that there isn’t enough basis to cite plagiarism.
There is little chance of anyone confusing Cassie’s young adult themes and orientation with the sometimes very adult storylines in Ms Kenyon’s books. Indeed, we expect that all of Ms Kenyon’s claims will be dismissed. (Source)
A quick summary of the case from The Guardian has summed up my own thoughts on why the lawsuit doesn’t look like it’s going to hold much water. I have to say though, that I’m not surprised by this at all; given who it involves.
It was only a matter of time before something like this happened.
Dark-Hunters vs Shadowhunters: What’s the Deal?
Based on what I’ve read of the official document submitted by Kenyon’s lawyer, the gist of the suit asserts that Clare “knowingly and wilfully copied” her series and several evidences are cited to bolster this claim.
The coverage of the proofs include how:
- Both stories are about “an elite band of warriors that must protect the human world from the unseen paranormal threat that seeks to destroy humans as they go about their daily lives,” and the existence of a handbook and code to keep these hunters in line;
- That the similarity in both series’ names and their use as titles in the books themselves are causing confusion between the two franchises; and finally
- An exhibit setting one of the most recognizable tattoos from Clare’s Shadowhunters beside a sigil attributed to Jaden, one of Kenyon’s characters.
Out of all the evidence put forward, that last one seems the most concrete: the designs do appear to echo each other.
Sadly, it’s not enough to prove that the claim is valid.
Having read both series, outside of otherwise general similarities, I have a hard time saying that the two works are alike.
On the surface, the premises of both series look the same. You’ve got a world where supernaturals exist. And naturally, there are individuals out there who Fight the Good Fight in order to protect humanity.
It’s not werewolves and vampires that hold the position of the Big Bad though. This brings us to the case’s main point of contention: both Dark-Hunters and Shadowhunters do battle against demons. To be completely honest though, demons cast as the opposition aren’t that uncommon if you’ve read or watched enough from the Urban Fantasy genre.
Setting and flavor-wise, Kenyon’s world draws a lot from Greek myth: she reimagines the whole length and breadth of gods, goddesses and creatures from that mythos. Clare’s world has a more Biblical slant – her Shadowhunters are descended from angelic roots.
They’re pretty different. Though this isn’t to say that I can’t see why Kenyon’s fans are up in arms over this. (They were actually the ones who flagged the similarities to Kenyon.)
When you take Cassandra Clare’s history (and the assertions of plagiarism that dog her to this day) into context, it’s difficult to dismiss Kenyon’s concerns. Kenyon is, after all, an author who has built a fairly long career on a concept that she feels a sense of ownership towards.
It’s a writer’s worst nightmare to hear that your work might be getting ripped off and repackaged for mass consumption. That sucks.
From Fanfic-writer to Best-seller: The Curious Case of Cassandra Clare
This opinion piece from back in 2012 is a fairly comprehensive breakdown of Clare’s controversial rise to fame. It covers her roots in fanfiction, and its impact on the reception of her current body of work.
I’m not saying that nobody likes her work – obviously, people do. A new television series from ABC Family is indicative of that.
However, it is fact that Cassandra Clare has been hit before with criticism. Criticism anchored on how her inspiration from other books shows in a way that you either know where these ideas came from, or you end up feeling just how derivative they are. The names may be different, but the execution is the same.
It’s not unusual for fanfic writers to make the crossover from writing fan work to original pieces. There has, however, been significantly less scandal for a number of them. And notably, their works are more distinctive in their style and execution.
At this point, you might wonder what the big deal is. So what if Cassandra Clare used her fanfic and turned it into an original story? Isn’t that a natural consequence when you’re moving from writing about other characters to writing about your own?
A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. (Source)
I want to take this moment to go a little into how the protection of authors’ rights where fanfiction is concerned has been around for quite a while. Why? Because it’s always been relevant. It’s just becoming increasingly relevant as the publishing industry learns to adapt to changes in technology.
Some ten to twenty years ago, “fandom” was confined solely to small groups who interacted via mailing lists and forums specific to their interests.
But the rise of social media and burgeoning interest in pop culture has made finding spaces online and people to interact much easier. Sharing fan work has come to the public domain, and publishers have even been known to look through these spaces to seek out new talent (hello, Wattpad, hello, E.L. James).
It’s handy, being a writer with a pre-packaged following. From a publisher’s perspective, signing on a writer like that means having a guaranteed audience and market to sell to.
Some authors are fine with fanfiction. Others opt to take a more hard-line stance to the point of explicitly stating that no one else can write about their characters, ideas and plot in order to protect their franchise and brand (you can find a fairly comprehensive list of authors for both sides of the coin over here).
It really boils down to the commercial aspect of things.
To repeat what I mentioned at the beginning of this article: books and publishing these books are an author’s livelihood. The accessibility that the Internet brings to both sides of the writer/reader exchange admittedly gets a bit blurry. The last thing a writer wants are claims that a fan theory/idea was stolen and made to make money. Even J.K. Rowling wasn’t immune.
She Said/She Said: Who’s Right or Wrong Then
This brings me back to the issue at hand.
Is there definitive proof that Clare plagiarized Kenyon so much that we can say that there is legal basis for the suit? It doesn’t look like it. Does that mean that Kenyon’s concerns are unfounded? I don’t think so.
I don’t think it’s fair though to chalk this up to that thing called “Writer Envy”. Or a presupposed pettiness on Kenyon’s part to do this for the money. Ideas aren’t subject to copyright. No one said that you can’t ever write about an idea that’s been done before.
It just bites that this looks like it will come down to Kenyon’s case dismissed; in spite of her good intentions to want to protect what she’s worked for. That’s not fair for writers. When you think about it, that’s not fair to the writers’ fans either.