I recently joined an online writing group geared toward novice writers, and have noticed a number of stories are much too similar to published works to be coincidental. They follow the same tone, the same plot, the same scenes, the same characters, often down to the letter, but no actual copying is being done.
I'm not an idiot. I know "sampling" happens a lot, in all types of media. Knock-off handbags, dresses, and jewelry happen in the fashion industry. Bands often play covers, or sample a melody from another artist. Television shows on competing networks sometimes follow the same high-concept idea. Even in publishing, you don't have to look far to find books that are loosely based on another book, movie, or TV show.
So why can't I get rid of this sour taste in my mouth?
Technically, it isn't plagiarism, because not enough is being copied verbatim, and copyright protection doesn't extend to ideas. But if someone approached you with a project that followed the outline of JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone with the same precision a high-priced plastic surgeon would use on a boob job, would it matter that the protagonist's name was Henry Porter, or that it took place in Saskatchewan? Wouldn't it be the same—albeit lesser quality—book, just under a new name?
Being Satan's literary agent and all, I'm hoping you have some insight as to the ethical and moral aspects of this, since the legal holds little water. Is it just me? Am I being a nitwit for expecting people to, I don't know, come up with their own schtick? Or is the secret to writing well not to write well at all, but instead to copy those who do?
The key piece of info here is that this is a beginner online writing group. We ALL start out creating works that look and sound like our teachers: writers, composers, artists. This is the equivalent of plopping your tailfeathers on a campstool at the Loover in Paris France and doing the Mona Lisa. I myself shamelessly ripped off one of Mary Stewart's novels for an undergrad comp class at Satan's School for Literary Agents.
It's a learning device.
The problem is if you don't understand it's a learning device and you send it off to me. I'm not going to hang your Mona Lisa knock off on my wall and I'm not going to take your JK Rowling novel out of my slush pile.
For the purposes of learning though, there's a whole lot to be said for close study of masters of craft. I've often told aspiring novelists to pick a novel they truly love and analyze it very very closely as a writer, not a reader.
Much like the earlier post about Joshua Bell in the WDC metro: the people who paused were the ones who really KNEW music and violins. Studying something to learn it well is part of that process.