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One Person's Copyright - Another's Opportunity

edited October 2011 in - Writing Tales
I relate this as a warning to the curious. In 2008, after three years work, my writing colleague and myself had almost completed a proposal and partial MS on a historical novel featuring a faithful re-imagining of two famous fictional characters. We wanted to flesh these characters out, take them in a new direction - while strongly in line with the original author's descriptions - only running further with them. I then received a call from my colleague saying we'd have to ditch the whole MS. He'd just spoken to a publisher who assured him he'd face a whole number of copyright issues to overcome with the original author's estate if we proceeded to completion. Since the project had been my colleague's idea in the first place, I had little choice but to agree. (Albeit very grudgingly). My colleague's health subsequently suffered greatly, and we haven't spoken for over two years. In 2009, a reimagined series featuring these characters then began on BBC1 to huge plaudits. While the first of (so far) two Hollywood films were then released - again from a very different perspective. The characters concerned were Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. I didn't know who to kill first. If there's a moral to this tale, it is never to accept a publisher's viewpoint at face value. He or she may have their own ulterior motive.


  • I wouldn't cast aspersions as to the publisher unless you know that they used your idea to profit for them. Even though it was re-imagined, it still came from a well known stock and there is always fan-fiction with folks taking a different tilt on it.

    I wrote what I thought was an original novel about a paramedic that was haunted by the ghosts of the people that had died in the back of the ambulance and lived their pain and deaths, only for the same year for a film to come out with the same kindish idea (Bringing Out the Dead), whose lead character was haunted by the people he had tried to save, so that was abandoned.

    I understand the frustration, but the screenwriter of Sherlock might not have had anything to do with your publisher, maybe their pitch was better to the blokes that willy-nilly spend our license fees.
  • I'm not sure what the rule is on copyright for characters. Is it possible that the producers of these films and series did in fact get clearance from the original writer's estates to use them, if that was necessary? Might be worth looking into, especially if your project is still lurking about somewhere.
  • [quote=casey] Is it possible that the producers of these films and series did in fact get clearance from the original writer's estates to use them[/quote]

    I would think so. You often read of projects stalling because permission has been withheld at the 11th hour.

    Remember the fiasco of the Room At The Top? A high profile version was ripped from the TV schedule with only hours to spare.
  • Lee, I didn't get the impression Mark was suggesting the publisher had done anything wrong. Just that the advice given to his co-writer, you could say was proved wrong, because the same type of idea was done by someone else.

    But as BB mentioned about permissions, it is probably easier for a writer with an established profile to get them, than unknowns.
  • [quote=Mark Andresen] He or she may have their own ulterior motive. [/quote]

    I did get that impression. I think that line means Mark is implying quite strongly that the same publisher was involved and did what he did on purpose.

    But the thing is, an idea is not copyrightable. No two authors' work is ever the same, and it was the particular way this was written, conceived etc that made it so wonderful.
  • Hey Mark was your writing partner wasn't called Moffat or Ritchie was he?
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