Last weekend we discussed that strange phenomenon of independent creation, where there's more than a passing resemblance to another work but it's not a case of plagiarism. Interestingly, not long after I posted that I saw not one but two instances of independent creation being brought up (though not by name!)
First, a fanartist was demanding credit for a fan character they created being made canon in a popular children's show– except that was unlikely to be the case. With production times, the likelihood that it was copied and not just a case of the show being entirely predictable to the point that the fan predicted the projection of a background character was pretty slim, and the creator most certainly wasn't going to spoil things telling the fan that it was too close to an existing concept. Even though we might see that as the “considerate” thing to do, the fan was creating designs for a character that belonged to a property they did not own. This is why creators can get so litigious with fan works and may refuse to acknowledge them.
The second instance was a worried webcomic artist posting in a forum thread that they were fearful of plagiarism accusations because several times they have seen popular cartoons and games come out with the same plot, very similar main characters, and other specific details that were very close to theirs. This was making them paranoid about making their work more well known even though their material predates all of the examples they brought up.
What can you do when it happens to you?
Just carry on as you were, keep your head down and do your thing. Even if your cast and your plot look identical, there's very little risk that the overall story and arc structure is going to look the same as this other work. It's just going to bother you when you see those similarities, and cause you to fixate on that instead of trying to let your own story develop naturally. Your plot will sprout tumors and end in cul de sacs in an attempt to differentiate your work from the other.
Sit back and observe.
It's a bummer that you don't get originality points, but seeing how they do the same idea can be both fascinating and helpful. Just because the idea is great doesn't mean their execution will be. Alternatively, maybe it's even better than your idea, and gives you some thoughts on how to make your story different or better, too. Watch how their audience reacts to things, especially the elements that were closest to yours. If you truly feel they are handling it more competently than you ever could, then perhaps a new idea is on the horizon for you, or taking things back for retooling.
If they handle it poorly, you ought to feel free to go out and do the story justice! Sure, if someone brings it to attention they might kick up a fit over who wore it better, but you are not obligated to keep your story in a little box in the dark while some hack who blundered into a great idea at the same time squanders it in the spotlight. Maybe you can't prove whose brain formulated this idea first but if theirs is going to devolve into hackneyed trash, then your (hopefully!) more competent version shouldn't be too ripe for comparison, anyway.
Do it, and do it BETTER!
Sit back and wait.
Especially in webcomics, the chances of this other work continuing on are pretty low. I've witnessed a lot of burnout and interminable hiatuses resulting in author's last updates being an apology for work and life encroaching on their storytelling ability. If the author can't finish their story, I think it's fair game to swoop in with your vision and present it to the world with the promise that you're not going to give up on it. If you were passionate enough about the idea to get all sensitive about seeing a similar idea manifested, that should hopefully sustain you to seeing the story to its conclusion. No use in getting worked up over an IP you're going to half-@s$ anyway!
Webcomics are not the only medium where you'll run into similar ideas though, in some cases you might just wait until the attention for this other thing begins to cool so you don't seem like someone jumping on the coattails of a popular thing. Fandoms only last so long as the “thing” they are into is on display, and it is quickly replaced by the next thing. If a series goes on too long, it wears out its welcome and passions cool. If a series makes an unpopular decision, the fandom is a ghost town. You may get a few stragglers who swear they see a resemblance in your work, but this is why it's important to reach out to your audience and keep a good rapport. If you are known to be earnest and well-intentioned, people will understand that it is coincidence.
Don't Change Horses in Midstream!
What do you do in the situation where your story is already underway? For example, I have my comic's storyline planned out for YEARS in the future, and on occasion I'll see something similar to what I've already had planned pop up in a show or another webcomic. I've already set the course for these things and don't intend to deviate from it just because someone revealed that plot point before I did. Do I run the risk of looking less original now? Yeah, and it sucks… but I just deal with it and carry on with the story as planned. Believe me, it is frustrating as all get-out if you had something in mind that would knock people's socks off and some johnny-come-lately blows it for you and then everyone is freaking out about how “Nobody ever does this in stories and it's great great great! Big kudos to this other author for their stunning originality!!”
I've also felt the sting of seeing someone else do the same thing and it gets received with far more fanfare than your idea did. It makes your big reveal feel diluted, and undermined somehow. Try not to be resentful and seethe with envy– just try and get your ideas out there more. Of course a more popular comic is going to get more conversation going on those themes! If you're not doing your part to promote your own work, there's no one to blame but yourself. It's important to have an archive with clear direction and hints to where the story is headed to fend off potential accusers. If you can't point out context clues, it may be hard to defend your ideas as independently created if it seems all very slap-dash in execution.
Ah, but sometimes it's just too much similarity to not have to pull everything up and start planting ideas all over again. Placing the story in another setting, or switching characters around, tweaking major plot points… but not if your story is underway already! I have seen people pull major retcons/mulligan the entire thing right smack in the middle of the proceedings and I kinda hate it. Yeah, it's a helluva lot of work to revamp an entire chapter, but if you're that worked up about some other comic or franchise running abreast with you in similarities, it's a necessary pain to go through. Don't do it to be “more original”, do it for narrative cohesion. I once saw a comic arbitrarily change the entire species of a major character mid-story, don't DO that! “Being more original” was the cited reason, but was not explained in the actual narrative, and as a reader trying to get into the world this person created, I lost all interest.
You can also help yourself avoid running into problems by looking at other works in the genre you are considering setting your story in. A little research goes a long way, and sites that document popular tropes like TV Tropes can help you find what narrative devices to avoid and which ones are rarely seen in that genre that you could try and employ.
Whine about it.
Don't! Try not to, at least. You may mention it in a bemused fashion, but going off on it puts the authors in an awkward situation and it makes you look a little like an attention-seeker. Yeah, it feels gross when you see something that looks so much like what you had in mind, and the possibility of having to give up on that doesn't sit well with most. You just have to remind yourself that originality is not the most important factor in the world, and trying too hard is folly. Originality for the sake of originality can skirt too close to being so obtuse as to be unrelatable, inscrutable, unpleasant. Telling an author directly “I had this same idea!” or “Nooo, I was going to do this and now I can't :'( ” looks pathetic to all who observe. From the eye-rolling “Sure you did” reaction, to people thinking you are attempting to lure them away from a known entity, it's just not good behavior and it guarantees that when your idea is out in the public view people are going to be hostile to it day 1. It doesn't matter who had it first, but who does it it first, and who does it better. If you're pitching a fit so hard and what you have to offer is NOT better, you're going to get torn to shreds.
Befriend the author
I mean, it looks like great minds think alike, huh?
Let's say we're talking another independent creator working in the small time. Maybe if you're actually good at the whole being amicable and social thing you can let the author know you're out there in a way that doesn't come off as hostile, accusatory, resentful or sycophantic. It seems you have something in common with them and they might be up for some discussion or even co-writing if that turns out to be your thing! Obviously, don't do this if you think their story SUCKS unless you're intending to offer some sound and useful advice. Nobody wants a false friend, and it feels like a betrayal if you come to them offering to be pals and then start trying to wrest control of their story into your hands.I'm not a social creature so I can only offer up so much on how to befriend strangers on the internet, but when I've seen a character design similar to mine, I just commented that it's amusing we stumbled on something similar, and make no indication that I think they copied me because I generally assume they didn't.
I believe it's important to make public record of your IP, even if it's just little snippets and previews. Your ideas are not protected until they are made known. It can help you avoid messy issues in the future when you run into the mirror image of your intellectual property! And if you truly are provably the first one to the party, try to be gracious and understanding of folks who might have come in after. Not everyone has eyes on your work and can understandably come to the same conclusions with their stories even if they live under a rock. Even a work that bears striking similarities is still going to bear the mark of its maker, and bring its own unique take to the proceedings.
In conclusion, just don't lose your head over the whole ordeal, this isn't Highlander and there can be more than one! Go forward with your ideas and don't worry so much about what other people are doing. Resist the urge to compare and pit yourself against others.
Next time we will discuss actual cases of imitation, otherwise known as the sincerest form of flattery!
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Amelius at 12:21PM, Dec. 16, 2018
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