Have you heard the saying “Good writers borrow, great writers steal”? According to my research it’s an Oscar Wilde quote but another website says it’s a rewording of a Picasso quote “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Another source says that the original quote is from T S Elliot, “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal”. This proves the point the quote is saying, almost all work is stolen in one way or another. While that may be true there are some ideas and works that have literally been stolen or are straight rip offs. Here is a list, in my opinion, of the top five interesting stolen ideas.
1) Howard the Duck… and Superman
Superman is a pop symbol who kicked started the Superhero trend. You could argue that there isn’t a child alive who isn’t aware of Superman and his famous S logo. Howard the Duck is a more obscure character. He’s perhaps most famous for his 1986’s movie (produced by George Lucas of Star War fame) which was a complete disaster. Howard is an anthropomorphic duck from the planet Duck-world where ducks are the dominant species instead of humans. Howard solves crimes and battles Supervillains using Quack-Fu. You can see the character in action from the movie clip below.
What these characters have in common is that they were both stolen from their respective companies.
Howard the Duck was created by Steve Gerber in 1973 who at the time was working for Marvel Comics. Due to Gerber’s contract Marvel owned the rights to the character even though Gerber had created him. Gerber took Marvel to court, fought for the rights to Howard the Duck, lost and found work as a writer in rival company Image Comics. In 1995, twenty two years after the court case, Marvel contacted Gerber and asked him if he would like to write another Howard the Duck story for them. At first Gerber declined, still upset over what he saw as the theft of his character but his boss persuaded him to accept the commission on the condition that it be a crossover story between Marvel and Image Comics. To Gerber’s surprise, Marvel accepted the proposal. After Gerber started work on the crossover story he heard rumours that Marvel planned to remove him as writer after a few issues and replace him with their own staff. Instead of failing to complete the story Gerber formed a revenge plan.
I won’t go over the details of the crossover comic because comic book worlds are complicated especially where crossover issues are concerned. What you need to understand is that over the course of the story all of the characters involved become trapped in a warehouse with thousands of Howard the Duck clones. In the Marvel comic Spider-Man, having played a key role in the story, returns to New York with Howard but in the Image comic Howard’s friends find the real Howard, deduce that Spider-Man took a clone and put Howard under witness protection with a new name and backstory. To recap, Howard the Duck was stolen from the Marvel Universe, moved to the Image Universe and replaced by a clone.
Gerber was delighted that he had stolen back his character and since he had done so in a Marvel comic it was considered cannon. (If you don’t understand the phrase Cannon you can read my previous post about it here) Why did the Marvel writers and executives allow Gerber to do this? To put it simply, they couldn’t be bothered to read the comic. It wasn’t until after Gerber’s death in 2008 did Marvel realise they had been robbed of a character. The company retconned all Howard the Duck stories (retconned meaning discounting as official cannon) written after the cross over event but the damage was done. Marvel had lost reputation and Gerber had the last laugh.
Superman’s theft is a very different story. In the 1940’s DC Comics (operating under a different name) were trying to protect their new character of Superman by suing other comic book publishers who had characters similar to Superman (mostly those who could fly, wore a cape and had super strength or heat vision.) At the time DC’s biggest competitor was Fawcett Publications who’s character Captain Marvel was outselling Superman. (Interesting side note: This character was no relation to the company Marvel who we discussed above although they did take the name Captain Marvel for one of their own characters. In a strange turn of events DC would later take ownership of the Captain Marvel character from Fawcett Publications and re-name him Shazam.)
Unfortunately for DC, when they took Fawcett to court Fawcett argued that 1) Their character was different enough from Superman to avoid confusion among readers (that reasoning was highly debatable, have a look at the picture below) and 2) even if Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman there was nothing DC could do about it because they allowed their copyright on Superman to expire several years previously. This statement confounded the DC lawyers who immediately launched a full investigation.
For several years DC had licensed Superman in a newspaper comic strip format to McClure newspapers. McClure had been publishing Superman stories but admins working for the newspaper had forgotten to add the copyright logos to the issues. The staff at McClure and the DC executives should have noticed this oversight but failed to. It’s not clear if McClure had allowed this slip up to happen intentionally so they could steal the character from DC (as many people have suggested) but DC quickly amended all future issues.
Although the judge in the DC vs Fawcett Publications case ruled in favour of DC by saying that Captain Marvel was too similar to Superman the case was eventually resolved out of court. Fawcett agreed to stop publishing Captain Marvel stories and DC managed to keep hold of their flagship character, Superman.
2) Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon
Recently I watched Magic beyond Words the J K Rowling story, an unofficial Harry Potter film. It chronicles the life of JK Rowling from birth until the premiere of the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Beyond the words is so bad, it’s good. The film makers fit in as many Harry Potter references as possible and include lots of soul searching conversations between Rowling and a young Harry Potter. (My favourite part of the film is when Rowling and her ex boyfriend are having an argument in Portugal. Rowling’s ex boyfriend’s accent changes from Portuguese to Mexican. He proudly says “but Joanna I love you” and the actress portraying Rowling literally flings herself at him). I don’t know how this film was made or why there hasn’t been a lawsuit against it but it certainly isn’t the only Harry Potter knock off.
In 2002 Harry Potter and Bao Zoulong (which was mistranslated to Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon) appeared for sale in China. When bought, readers could find J. R. R. Tolkin’s book The Hobbit but with character names changed to those from the Harry Potter universe. The author of this text is still currently unknown.
In 2009 Adrian Jacobs claimed that Rowling stole ideas and concepts from his own children’s novel The Adventures of Willy the Wizard: Livid Land. He argued both Willy and Harry had to save hostages from a half human, half magical creatures and work out a vital clue for a competition in a bathroom. Jacobs was referring to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Jacobs insisted he be paid £500 million in compensation and that all copies of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire be burned. Jacobs’ case was hinged on two plot similarities and coupled with the fact he launched his claim seven years after the first Harry Potter book was published it’s not surprising he lost his claim.
A more serious threat to the Harry Potter franchise came in the form of Nancy Stouffer. Stouffer claimed Rowling has stolen several concepts from her two children’s books. What made this claim stand out against the others were the titles of Stouffer’s books. The Legend of Rah and the Muggles and Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly. Muggle means a non magical person in the Harry Potter universe and Lilly is the name of Harry’s mother. Larry Potter was also an eleven year old boy with round glasses and messy dark hair. Stouffer books had been published in America in the 1980’s when Rowling had visited the country. Any fears Rowling and her publishers had were unfounded. It was discovered that although Stouffer had published books in the 1980’s she had recently changed the publication date and inserted the word Muggle to aid her lawsuit. She was fined $50,000 plus legal fees.
3) William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
William Shakespeare. Two words that strike fear and dread into many English students. You can choose to believe that William Shakespeare was one man, a group of writers or that he didn’t exist at all but you can’t deny his influence on the modern world. What if I told you William Shakespeare stole the plot of most of his plays, most notably Romeo and Juliet.
I’ve written about Romeo and Juliet before (You can read the review here) but William Shakespeare did not create the story. Shakespeare took the story from a 1562 narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet and that poem was taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Pyramus and Thisbe. In Pyramus and Thisbe one lover believes the other to be dead and the lover’s families are locked in a brutal blood feud. There are other versions of the story that include familiar plot devices such as a potion that induces a death like state. Shakespeare collected these elements and added them into his own work.
According to Dr Charlotte Scott from Goldsmith’s University, only four of Shakespeare’s plays are his own creation. You can watch her video on the subject below.
4) Disney’s The Lion King
I define myself as a 90’s child therefore the film of my childhood is The Lion King. I grew up watching and rewatching the Lion King on a VHS tape. Interestingly Disney set an unbeatable record with Lion King on VHS tape, they released the deluxe version of the film as many home owners were swapping to DVD players. Disney sold 4.5 million tapes on the first day of release and since it was one of the last films on VHS the record can not be beaten.
The plot of the Lion King revolves around Simba, a lion cub who after witnessing his father’s death flees his homeland of Pride Rock only to return and take over the territory from his evil uncle. The plot of the Lion King is very similar to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet’s father is killed and Hamlet flees only to return and kill his evil uncle who is now ruling the land. There are many similarities between the two stories, both father’s are seen as ghosts, both Hamlet and Simba face a moral decision to do what is right and the characters of Horatio and Ophelia forfill the same roles as Timone, Pumbaa and Nala respectively. There are of course many differences the most notable being only two characters die in Lion King, Simba’s Father Mufasa and Simba’s evil uncle Scar. In Hamlet almost everyone dies and that would be very difficult to translate into a children’s film. The ages of the character are also changed the Lion King is more upbeat.
The Lion King is also based of Kimba the White Lion created by Japanese cartoonist, Osamu Tezuka. Yes, Kimba and Simba sound similar but the creators of Lion King also stole many character designs and ironic images as seen below.
5) Ernest Hemmingway’s suitcase
Ernest Hemingway is famous for his sparse prose style and many theories have reached different conclusions as to why he chose to write like this. Many credit his past as a journalist, others say it was the psychological effects of the First World War. One theory suggests it was an incident with his suitcase. Although that theory is ridiculous the story behind it is true.
Before Hemmingway became famous he worked for the Toronto Daily Star and was covering a peace conference in Switzerland. While there Hemmingway met an old friend of his, an editor and fellow journalist Lincoln Steffens and the pair spoke about the craft of writing. Steffens became intrigued and asked to see more of Hemmingway’s work. Unfortunately, Hemmingway didn’t have any more stories or poems to hand and send a message to his wife, Hadley, in Paris to bring him his documents.
Hadley packed all of Hemmingway’s manuscripts, sketches and notes into a suitcase which she took to Gare Du Lyon station. Tragically Hadley left the suitcase unattended on the train to buy herself a bottle of water for the journey. When she returned to the train the suitcase had been stolen.
When Hemmingway learned of the theft he was heartbroken. He returned to Paris and found that his wife had also packed the duplicates and various drafts of his work into the case. Only two short stories survived the disaster because they hadn’t been stored in Hemmingway’s house. Although Hemmingway was upset he viewed recovering his work as a pointless task and didn’t make any efforts to find his stolen documents. As previously stated Hemmingway was not yet famous when the theft occurred and the papers were worthless to anyone but him. Hemmingway admitted that the thief, not knowing what was inside the suitcase, probably dumped or destroyed the contents. If those papers were found today they would be priceless.
This event scared Hemmingway and he wrote in his sparse style in fear of losing his work again. Personally I think Hemmingway style was natural, like a writer’s voice but I do like the story behind the theory.
What do you think of these famous stolen ideas? Did you enjoy the list? Leave your thoughts in the comments down below and I’ll see you next time.