Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen IdeasS

Science fiction is literature of ideas - it's just that sometimes, those ideas are lifted from elsewhere. Some of the genre's greatest creators have gotten ripped off, or been accused of plagiarism. Here's our list.

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen IdeasS

The Purple Cloud: In M.P. Shiel's 1901 science-fiction classic The Purple Cloud, a Scottish preacher warns that God doesn't want us to explore the North Pole, and will strike down anyone who tries. But an explorer named Jeffson doesn't listen, and somehow he unleashes a deadly purple cloud, which wipes out the entire human race, except for Jeffson and a hawt young woman. Shiel sent this masterpiece off to a publisher, William Blackwood And Sons - which rejected it, but then published a very similar novel under the title The End Of An Epoch, Being The Personal Narrative Of Adam Godwin, The Survivor, by A. Lincoln Green. In Green's book, a man named Adam goes to work for a microbiologist, Dr. Azrael Falk, who claims he can immunize the body against all diseases - but he's actually developing a super-baccilus that will kill everyone. Meanwhile, Adam's fiancee Evelyn is traveling to the North Pole with her father. When the super-germ gets released, only Adam (who's immunized) and Evelyn (who was in the North Pole during the epidemic) survive. (Do you see what he did there? Adam and Evelyn?) Shiel cried foul, but had no recourse. Luckily, the Purple Cloud got a more worthy copy years later, when Stephen King used it as a major inspiration for The Stand. (Unlike Green, King acknowledges borrowing from Purple.) And then, in turn, author Robert R. McCammon was accused of stealing from The Stand for his book Swan Song.

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen IdeasS

Phantoms: Two sisters, Dawn Pauline Dunn and Susan Hartzell, wrote a couple of books, The Crawling Dark and Demonic Color, under the name Pauline Dunn. Too bad both books - especially Crawling - stole huge chunks of prose, plus ideas, from Dean R. Koontz's novel Phantoms, about a whole town that disappears overnight. The publisher withdrew the book (although it's on Amazon for 40 cents) and Koontz forced them to take out a half-page ad in Publisher's Weekly apologizing.

Star Crash: Peter David recounts (via Scott Edelman) that he was working for a publishing house, Elsevier Nelson, which put out a novel called Star Crash by an unknown author. Turns out it was copied, word for word, from a 1960s novel by comics writer Gardner Fox.

We wound up getting back the entire advance from the plagiarist and sending it to Fox, along with any future royalties and a guarantee that the book would carry his name on it should it go back to press. DC put us directly in touch with Gardner. Considering the circumstances, he was extremely gentlemanly about it. His attitude was that it was found money for him; the book had been out of print for ages and all of a sudden it was generating new revenue for him.

Death In The Spirit House: Two writers, Ron Montana and Craig Strete, collaborated for a time, and then Montana later accused Strete of ripping off his novel, Death In The Spirit House. The case became a huge brou-ha-ha, with writers taking both sides, but author Sheldon Teitelbaum investigated and decided that it was more a misunderstanding than a case of out-and-out theft. (And Teitelbaum, who seems to have some history with Harlan Ellison, blamed Ellison for escalating the feud and hooking Montana up with his attorney.)

The "Rum Tum Tugger" fiasco: Writer Ann Melrose copied a Chet Williamson story, "To Feel Another's Woe," including large passages verbatim. She did change the story from first to third person, and her characters are auditioning for Cats instead of Streetcar Named Desire. Melrose had the nerve to send her re-engineered story off to editor Ellen Datlow - who had published the Williamson original, and immediately recognized the inferior copy.

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen IdeasS

Future Cop: Remember the classic TV series Future Cop, starring Ernest Borgnine as a human police officer who teams up with an android? Me neither. But Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova sued, saying it was too similar to their short story "Brillo," also about a human teaming up with an android cop. (Isn't that also awfully similar to Asimov's Caves Of Steel?) They won a "piffling" $285,000 settlement, according to Ansible, which added: "I am waiting keenly for Dr. Who or some such huge-budget production to plagiarize my own 'Sex Pirates and the Blood Asteroid.'"

Alien: Author A.E. Van Vogt sued 20th Century Fox, claiming the movie Alien ripped off his classic novel The Voyage Of The Space Beagle. Fox supposedly settled out of court.

The Unfriendly Ghost Writer: When people accused Lanaia Lee (aka Mary Kellis) of stealing wholesale from David Gemmell's book Dark Prince for her novel Of Atlantis, she stood by the originality of her work. At first. Then she blamed her agent, Cheryl Pillsbury, who had hooked her up with a ghostwriter, Christopher Hill. Hill "fixed up" Lee's novel, by patching it with some bits of Gemmell. Lee tried to play on people's sympathies, pointing out she was a stroke victim, and Pillsbury threatened her critics with "wiccan curses."

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen Ideas

Beware Falling Suns: Cecelia Holland accused author William James of ripping off a few of her novels for his space-opera trilogy. It's not like he did anything obvious, like calling one of his novels Before The Sun Falls, when one of her books was called Until The Sun Falls. Oh wait. He did.

The Third Eye: A woman named Sophia Stewart accused Warner Bros. and a bunch of other people of ripping off her 1983 story, The Third Eye, for both The Terminator and The Matrix. She said she had provided it to studio people, and also sent it to the Wachowskis in response to a 1986 ad seeking science-fiction stories for them to turn into comic books. She also posted some Matrix-looking excerpts on her site:

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen IdeasS



It was reported in 2004 that Stewart had won her case, but apparently it was actually dismissed because she failed to show up for a hearing and had produced no evidence.

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen IdeasS

The Invisible Rip-off: Someone who has a bit more standing to accuse The Matrix of copying is Grant Morrison, author of comics series The Invisibles. Morrison told an interviewer that it's well known the Wachowskis gave copies of the Invisibles collections to their designers and told them to copy from them:

It's not some baffling 'coincidence' that so much of The Matrix is plot by plot, detail by detail, image by image, lifted from Invisibles so there shouldn't be much controversy. The Wachowskis nicked The Invisibles and everyone in the know is well aware of this fact but of course they're unlikely to come out and say it.

He added that the main problem with the two sequels was that the Wachowskis didn't steal enough from The Invisibles this time around.

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen Ideas

There Can Be Only One: When a 12-year-old Quebecois girl, Marie-Pier Cote, wrote a novel, Laura L'immortelle, everyone greeted it as a precocious miracle. She got lots of attention in the news media - until someone uncovered that she hadn't written the book at all - she had plagiarized a Highlander fan fic. That's just embarrassing, on so many levels.

Terminator With A Glass Hand: Harlan Ellison sued James Cameron and the makers of Terminator, claiming the movie ripped off a couple of Outer Limits episodes he'd written: "Demon With A Glass Hand" and "Soldier." Cameron and producer Gale Ann Hurd, and put an ad in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. Says Ellison's own website: "Ever since then, Cameron is said to go ballistic if Ellison's name is mentioned."

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen Ideas

The Super-Lawsuits: As we detailed in this post, the Man Of Steel has been a tireless champion... of his own intellectual property. Fox Publications hired Will Eisner to create their own Superman, who was called Wonder Man. Eisner also created the Superman-ripoff Master Man for Fawcett. National Publications was energetic in pursuing all of these wannabe-Kryptonians in court.

Eragon's Destiny: George Lucas has never sued, but Christopher Paolini's Eragon books, also known as The Inheritance Cycle, are widely acknowledged as a Star Wars ripoff. The similarties extend to some very minute details (although Paolini undoes the part where the Luke character's father is the Darth Vader character, instead making the Obi-Wan character his dad.)

Nosferatu: The 1922 film Nosferatu movie could be generously called an "unauthorized remake" of Dracula, because F.W. Murnau and company couldn't get the rights to Stoker's novel.

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen Ideas

Elementary Plagiarism: That Star Trek: The Next Generation episode where Data and Geordi take on Professor Moriarty on the holodeck? Technically plagiarism, because the Sherlock Holmes canon hadn't passed into the public domain yet, something that took the writers by surprise when they received an angry letter from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate. (The Trek writers were able to settle the matter enough to use Moriarty in a follow-up episode.)

The Trouble With Flatcats: Writer David Gerrold might have accidentally lifted the Tribbles (from Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles") from the flatcats of Robert Heinlein's The Rolling Stones. Heinlein read the script, and sent a note back saying "I felt the analogy to my flat cats was mild enough to be of no importance," and that the idea wasn't really original with him in any case.

Miniature: The Twilight Zone episode "Miniature" (starring Robert Duvall) was shelved for twenty years, after an author sued for plagiarism. It was finally reaired in 1984.

J.K. Rowling has been accused of plagiarism many times - most notably by Nancy Stouffer, a woman who claimed she'd invented the word "muggle." (Even though it appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as dating back to 1205.) She lost so badly, the judge ordered Stouffer to pay $50,000 and never accuse Rowling of plagiarism again. (I also saw something about a woman who sued Stephen King, saying he flew past her house in his private airplane and took pictures of her writings, so he could copy them. But I couldn't find any details.)

Science Fiction's Greatest Stolen IdeasS

The Island Horror: Director Robert Fiveson accused Michael Bay's The Island of being a straight-up rip-off of his 1970s schlock fest Parts: The Clonus Horror. Fiveson sued, and Dreamworks settled out of court for $1 million.

Player Piano: Kurt Vonnegut said he "cheerfully ripped off" the plot of Brave New World for this novel - and Aldous Huxley, in turn, stole it from Eugene Zamatian's We.

Is plagiarism getting worse in science fiction? Samuel Delany seems to think so. He says, in his book About Writing:

[E]ven the nature of plagiarism has become a new order of problem in the last thirty years. From the eighties through the present, writers from age fifteen to age thirty-five have regularly handed me stories that were pastiches of William Gibson's Neuromancer, Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings, or, more recently, Rowling's Harry Potter. Many do not even bother coming up with new names for the characters. Some have actually been quite skillfull. But all these young writers were quite surprised when I told them there was no hope of publishing such work outside a specifically fan context. More than one told me: "But whenever you read about movies or television, or even best sellers, everyone always says what producers and publishers want is something exactly like something that's been successful. That's what I thought I'd done..."

Of course, there's nothing wrong with lifting a few ideas here and there. Isaac Asimov explained, in an interview, that he doesn't mind people borrowing his ideas, as long as they don't steal his stories:

As a matter of fact, we authors in SF are more or less friends; we inhabit a small, specialized world in which we are comfortable, and the general feeling is that ideas are common property: if one SF writer thinks up something which is very useful, another may put it into his own words and use it freely. Nobody in SF is going to accuse any other person in SF of using his ideas; in fact, we borrow so generously that there's no way of telling whose idea it was originally. For instance, in my novel The Caves Of Steel, it was very important to the plot to have moving sidewalks, with an elaborate system of side strips that enabled you to work up to the speed of the sidewalks or to work down to the surrounding, motionless medium. This had already appeared some years before in Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll." Well, I borrowed it without any worry at all. I'm sure that Heinlein in reading my novel would have recognized his system, but who knows where he got it from? He never said anything. It'd be different if I used the details of his plot and worked up a story that was so like his that nobody could fail to see it - that's plagiarism. But just to use the idea and build your own plot or story about it - why, we do that all the time. And they do it from me, too - you know, they use the three laws of robotics - and they're welcome. I have no objection.

Additional reporting by Alasdair Wilkins.