Skip to Content

Can You Borrow Ideas From Other Books?

In a litigious world, borrowing someone else’s idea from published works is not without risk. It pays to be aware of the basic principles regarding using the works of another. At the same time, ideas are not new things; the legal issues arise in part when the user profits from passing the ideas of another off as their own.

The use of another’s words, characters, plot twists, and turns of phrasing can be against the strictures of current intellectual property laws. In scholarly writing, the same is true. Some leeway is granted when the purpose of the writing falls under fair use provisions.

To determine whether borrowing the ideas of another is acceptable, some definitions are in order. These include plagiarism, pastiche, remixing, and parody. Some definitions are affected by the passage of time, while others are affected by the purpose of the usage.

What are some ways that ideas get reused?

Using ideas from another source can take several forms: plagiarism, pastiche, remixing, and parody.  Each of those forms has a long literary history, but only some are considered acceptable in modern literature and scholarly writing, and under current intellectual property laws. 

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is defined as presenting the ideas or work of another as your own, by incorporating it into your own work without full and proper acknowledgement. The definition of plagiarism covers both published and unpublished materials. The work can be in manuscript, electronic, or printed form. The definition can include taking characters, plot twists, or even distinctive turns of phrase and allowing others to believe that the work is your own. 

In academia, the punishment for plagiarism depends on the institution, as well as the severity of the offense. The typical consequences can include lower grades, an automatic failure of the course, suspension or academic probation, or even expulsion from the institution. 

Outside of academia, most cases are considered misdemeanors. The fines can range between $100 and $50,000 and up to one year in jail. Under some state and federal laws, plagiarism is considered to be a felony. In the case of some career-affecting plagiarized materials, reporters have been disgraced when they claimed authorship of news stories which were actually written by others.

Historically, the rules which identified plagiarism were interpreted differently. For example Shakespeare borrowed the plot, setting, and some names of characters in Othello from an Italian novelist’s short story.  He also turned an existing narrative poem into Romeo and Juliet.  Orwell took the key themes and a number of plot points from a Russian novel he had personally reviewed, and turned them into his book 1984. Dumas stole all the major characters and plot twists in The Three Musketeers from another book he read. None of these well-known authors were disgraced or criticized for their plagiarism in ways that they would be, today.

Pastiche

A pastiche is a tribute to another piece of work or author, generally to show respect.  This type of borrowing of ideas can be done by remaking an existing work (with credit), by imitating stylistic choices, or utilizing elements of style typical to the original work.

Some examples of pastiche include many of the Sherlock Holmes adaptations and stories which were created long after Doyle’s passing. Fans often create works which feature the iconic detective. There are websites dedicated to noncommercial fanfiction of all sorts, which frequently is written to show fans’ appreciation for the original works. This type of writing is also utilized by commercial authors. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a pastiche taking two side-characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and highlighting their reactions to the events of Hamlet.

Remixing

Remixing takes elements or characters from another work, then explores them in new ways. Remixing may differ markedly or very little from the original. Remixing can overlap with pastiche, but it is not always intended as an homage. Remixing can be simply derivative but exploring different themes or outcomes. Remixing can also be a criticism of the original work.

An excellent example of a current remix is the musical ‘Hamilton’. The Broadway hit essentially remixes American history, taking characters and events and portraying them in a very different way.

Parody

Parodies are typically (but not always) intended critically.  A successful parody will Imitate stylistic choices of particular works or writers from the original source material and will highlight them as weaknesses – humorously or otherwise.

Some examples of notable parodies include: 

  • Don Quixote was written as a parody of the chivalric romance novels of the period.
  • Galaxy Quest is a loving parody of Star Trek. 
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies parodies Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled  relationships between lovers from different social classes in the 19th century.
  • Shrek (the movie, specifically) is a parody of the classic Disney animated fairy-tale movie script.

6 Ways to Avoid Plagiarism

Don’t just copy words from another writer. As you are doing your research, particularly for academic papers, keep track of the sources you use. Describe the materials, rather than copying what you read. To avoid confusion about your sources, try using different colored fonts, pens, or pencils for each one, and make sure you clearly distinguish your own ideas from those you found elsewhere.

As you do your research, use a range of sources. Don’t take all of your material from a single source. As you explore the ideas of several others, you can find shades of meaning, multiple perspectives, and different ways of expressing the material that you read. 

Develop your own style. The sources of your research expressed in your own words and in your own style can help to prevent accusations of plagiarism.

Keep good quality notes. To avoid accusation or conviction of plagiarism, do the research in a way that identifies your sources and cites the material according to standard style manuals. 

Use quotation marks to incorporate exact words when it is appropriate to the research paper or thesis works. Missing citations and misquotations are both forms of plagiarism.

For students and researchers alike, there are tools which have been developed to identify originality, similarity, authentication, and even provide help with revision. Turnitin is one which has been used around the world, and at secondary level, higher education, and for research and publication. Other tools, some of which are free of charge, include PlagiarismDetector.net, DupliChecker.com, and Grammarly.com.

When can I use someone else’s idea?

Copyright and intellectual property laws are strict in many countries. However, fair use provisions are permitted to allow for the fair usage of an author’s work without payment or permission under certain scenarios. These scenarios include criticism (as in parody), reporting (as in the news), education (in teaching and scholarly research), or transformative purposes (adding new elements or different characters, or to serve a different purpose).

Whether the works in consideration are fiction or nonfiction, is a component of how fair use is judged. As identified above, the way that the material is to be used is also a factor in determining whether it falls under the definition of plagiarism. 

Another factor in whether or not the material is considered as an offense under the law is the amount or significance of the portion which is ‘copied’. The value of the original work and the effect on the market can also affect the punishment parameters.

Is original work in the public domain?

Public domain is a designation for content that is not protected by any copyright law or other restriction and may be freely copied, shared, altered and republished by anyone. The designation means, essentially, that the content belongs to the community at large.

A public domain book is one that is not covered by intellectual property rights or copyright, usually because the rights have expired. Once a book enters public domain, it can be reprinted and distributed without the need to get permission from the original author.

Some of the books which just were made part of the public domain in 2022 include:

  • Winnie-the-Pooh, the Original Classic.
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.
  • The Castle by Franz Kafka.

Are there any new ideas? 

One argument for concerns about the use of ideas from another is the belief that there are no new ideas, so plagiarism is inescapable. The commonly repeated statement that all story plots are based on either the Bible or Shakespeare is one example.

The range of human language and human thought is amazing. There are always new ideas and new writings. As long as there are people, there will be new ideas and new ways of expressing them. If you arrive on an idea that has been used before, the fact that you arrived at the idea is as important as writing it in your own voice. Education is more than learning facts or pulling them from a study. Education is learning how to find facts and how they should be applied.