Preview Blog: Copying Others: How Much is Too Much?

Episode 3 preview blog, by Zoë Kirk-Robinson. Listen to the episode here.

We all have people or media that has inspired us; it’s something fundamental to human nature. Even going back to antiquity, the Iliad has fanfiction and there are responses to ancient Greek plays that themselves got plays written in response. We take what we experience, and we make things out of it. That’s how creators work.

Nevertheless, there has to be a point at which one can say a work does not contain enough new material to be considered a valid work in its own right. My question is then “where is this point found?”

It’s a difficult question to answer, of course, but I cannot help feeling we can all identify when that line has been crossed. Let’s look at a fictional example, because I don’t want to point fingers and cause bad blood. Let’s say we have a comic called The Adventures of Brilliant Brian and it’s a story about two guys who like to play computer games. A lot of the stories involve them sitting on a sofa, playing games and being smartasses about it. So far, so familiar, right?

Is this where the line is? I can think of dozens of comics that have that setup, and many people will point at them as Penny Arcade clones. They are not. The “talking on the sofa” format did not start then, it started much earlier. I was watching TV shows with that format as a child, and so were my parents. Penny Arcade combined the sofa comedy setting with wisecracking about video games, but that in itself was not new. PvP was doing it six months earlier.

So if the sofa and game joke format isn’t new, is using it again a bad thing? I know I try to steer clear of it in All Over the House (although I’ve gone down that road a couple of times) but even there I use the “sofa comedy” setting a lot. This is because I feel it has been done to death and needs a rest before it’s a viable trope again, not because it’s too close to copying.

So let’s introduce another element. Now our two wiseguys are sat on a sofa playing games while an incredibly hot girl (who either lives with them for no logical reason, or is dating one of them for reasons even she can’t explain) sits to one side, making cheap jokes about how the guys never grew up. Seen it before? Seen it a million times before?

Let’s throw in a talking pet of some kind. Any animal, robot or sentient household appliance will do. Now we’re getting somewhere! Now we’ve got just about every gaming comic on the planet.

Are we copying yet? Who are we copying? Is it even possible to be copying when you’re not so much ripping off one work as simply playing follow the leader?

When do you copy, and when has something been copied so much that it has become part of the expected format of the genre?

Is it even possible to copy when you’re taking basic character types rather than the characters themselves, and running with them in a different direction to the original creator? Isn’t that inspiration? What is the difference between copying and inspiration anyway?

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