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Can You Use Ideas From Other Books?

Over time, the rules about borrowing the ideas of another person have changed. This also varies from one country to another. When creating books, papers, or other written materials it is important to be aware of the legal requirements to avoid running afoul of the law. 

In today’s legal-minded society, using exact quotes, plot twists, characters, or phrasing modalities from other sources can create problems under IP laws. In scholarly writing, it is particularly important to practice attribution of the works of another. Fair use laws can affect the determination. 

A study of the topic of borrowing ideas from another individual requires understanding some of the definitions and terms which are common. As the legal and common usage definitions of plagiarism, pastiche, remixing, and parody evolve, the passage of time can affect the understanding of restrictions. Here are some suggestions for avoiding problems with improper use of ideas.

Here are some ways of recycling ideas

The following forms of borrowing ideas comprise a range of both acceptable and unacceptable usage. Except for plagiarism, which is never acceptable, the other types of reusing ideas–pastiche, remixing, and parody can be accepted. Over time the precise forms of these modes have changed, and some types are no longer acceptable, when in previous generations, they were commonly used. 


The definition of plagiarism includes the presentation of the works of another individual or entity as your own, by placing it in the body of your own work, without complete and correct attribution. The plagiarized material does not have to be published; it can be printed, electronic, or simply a manuscript. The definition is broad enough to include distinctive plot twists, phrasing, and characters which are claimed as your own work. 

For academic plagiarism, the scope and specifics of plagiarism vary from one institution to another. Some of the published consequences include lowered grades, failure of the specific course, probation or suspension from the institution, or even expulsion. Many of these punishments can have effects long after the contributing event, including employment, recognition of further work and more. 

If the plagiarism occurs outside of college or university settings, the offense is usually considered a misdemeanor. Fines can fall in the range of $100 to $50,000. A year in jail can be the result. Some states and federal jurisdictions consider plagiarism to be a felony. Reporters who have been determined to be plagiarists are not only disgraced but can lose their jobs.

While past centuries have instances of what today would be considered plagiarism, they were considered acceptable at the time, and have since passed into common usage. One example is Shakespeare’s work of Othello, which was taken from the plot, setting and some characters’ identity of a short story by an Italian novelist. Romeo and Juliet was based on a contemporary narrative poem.


The classic book 1984 by Orwell utilized key themes and several plot points from a novel which he had previously reviewed. The Three Musketeers by Dumas has plot twists and characters that were lifted in their entirety from another published author. Today, each of these revered authors would be facing criticism, consequences, and even legal punishment for their actions. 


Pastiche is not considered in the same way as plagiarism is. Pastiche is typically a respectful tribute to another work or author. The tribute takes the form of remaking an existing work and giving credit to the originator. Some of the borrowing of ideas includes imitation of stylistic choices of the original.

Some obvious examples of pastiche include fans’ creations of Sherlock Holmes stories, using the iconic detective and sometimes other surrounding characters featured in Doyle’s original works. Similarly, the pastiche Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is created from the reactions of minor characters to Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Noncommercial fanfiction is found on numerous websites online, and some authors are hired to write books under certain brands. 


Remixing has some of the same elements as pastiche work. A remix, such as the Broadway hit musical Hamilton, takes characters or elements from the work of another and fleshes them out in ways that may be vastly different from the original. Remixing is not always intended in a positive way; it can be a criticism of the original piece. It can also just be intended to explore different paths or themes from the original work. 


A parody is usually intended as criticism of the original work. To be successful, parodies often mimic the stylistic choices of writers or works and will present them as weaknesses or limitations. Parodies are often humorous. Parodies can stand alone, or can require being familiar with the original. Don Quixote is an example of a parody which is recognized for itself. Many readers do not realize that it was created as a parody of numerous chivalric romance styles of the same period. 

The popularity of Star Trek in all its iterations has spawned many pastiches, but the movie Galaxy Quest is a loving parody of the original characters. Another example is Shrek (the movie, not the book). This movie script parodies the popular classic Walt Disney animations of fairy tales, which continue to be created and produced. Jane Austen’s classics often portrayed entanglements between lovers of differing social classes in the 1800s. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a parody of her work.

Tips to avoid academic plagiarism 

Students and researchers alike must be aware of the implications of copying the work of another without providing proper attrition. The techniques of careful and complete note-taking will prevent many of the contributing causes of plagiarism. When doing the research, avoid copying the words of another.  Note-taking is intended to describe the content and identify the sources. It is important that you distinguish the source materials from your own thoughts and ideas. 

Multiple sources when researching a topic will improve your finished product, and will help to avoid too much emphasis and content from a single source. Multiple sources allows the researcher to identify more than one perspective, different ways of portraying similar ideas and shades of meaning when writing the final document. Do not be afraid of using your own style and your own words. 

When you are using exact words, follow accepted style manual requirements. Quotation marks identify the words of another. Correct citations allow others to follow up and cross check your ideas and words. Misquoting the words or missing citations have been identified as types of plagiarism in actual cases. 

If you are uncertain about your ability to identify plagiarism in your own work, you can make use of tools which are being used in many academic institutions. These software tools identify originality, authentication, and similarity in your works. Some of the software will even provide help when revision is needed. Some of the tools currently available include,, and

Can I use someone else’s idea?

Intellectual property and copyright laws are more stringent in some countries than in others. Using someone else’s idea is permitted in some instances without permission of the author or payment. For example, you can criticize a work or parody it, you can report on it, you can use it in teaching or scholarly research, or you may be able to add different characters and new elements to serve a different purpose. These instances are titled ‘Fair Use’.

Judging whether or not a work comes under ‘Fair Use’ laws may depend on how the material is used, and whether the work under consideration is nonfiction or fiction. Another element which affects whether or not the material is Fair Use is the scope or importance of the copied material. The marketplace impact and the value of the original may also determine whether plagiarism is present. 

Is the underlying work in the public domain?

Under copyright laws, there are ending dates for protection of the material in question. After a stated term, the content or characters are no longer protected under copyright laws. The material is then free of any restrictions and can be changed, used, copied, or republished by others. Public domain designation states that the content no longer belongs to one individual, but to the wider community. 

A book that is made part of the public domain category is no longer covered by copyrights or intellectual property rights. Usually this designation occurs when the copyrights have expired. Each year lists of books which have become part of the public domain are published. In 2022, some well-known books becoming part of the public domain include:

  • Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas 
  • Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.
  • Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner 

Are new ideas still occurring?

Some skeptics have complained that there is no such thing as a new idea–that everything has already been said, so it is impossible to avoid plagiarizing someone else’s work. A quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes says “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

As knowledge increases, human thought continues to come up with new ideas and new ways of expressing them. People express ideas in ways that are built on their own set of experiences and filters. Even if an idea has been used previously, expressing it in your own way can make it unique and important. The basis of education is more than reciting facts or copying facts. True education involves learning how to find facts and how to apply what you find.