Why the Entire World Doesn't Steal from Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is a great writer—one of the best short story authors of the last half century. Ever since I read "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" as a wide-eyed high school student I've actively sought out his fiction. Even when his stories don't succeed his cutting prose and exploration of ideas usually far surpass the short fiction of other authors. Several well-thumbed editions of his stories rest on my bookshelves.

So yes, I really like Ellison's fiction. And that's why it pains me every time he opens his mouth and complains about someone stealing his ideas.

The latest example comes in a Wall Street Journal interview where Ellison claims Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Road rips off "A Boy and His Dog."

Sorry Harlan, but no f'in way.

The truth is all stories owe debts to stories which came before—especially when an author writes on a well-tread theme like the post-apocalypse. As I wrote a few years ago about The Road, there are many  stories which no doubt influenced McCarthy's novel. Along with Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" these influences include Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, On the Beach by Nevil Shute, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, The Postman by David Brin, Alas,Babylon by Pat Frank, and, most notably, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

However, there is a big difference between influencing and stealing. Between stories sharing the same idea and plagiarism.

Each of the works listed above frames the post-apocalyptic world in different and unique ways, yet it would be silly to claim they've all stolen from each other. Instead, they've built upon each other across the years—sometimes deliberately, sometimes on a subconscious level. That is what the term "influence" means. Cultural artifacts like stories ripple to various degrees across our mental landscape, influencing viewpoints and beliefs far beyond the original creation.

But again, that type of influence doesn't amount to stealing.

It's possible Ellison was joking in that interview about McCarthy ripping off his story, but I suspect he is being serious. After all, Ellison has a history of claiming other people stole his works. He sued Orion Pictures and James Cameron for "stealing" the ideas behind The Terminator, specifically the idea of a soldier being sent into the past to fight. Ellison also claimed they stole his idea of a human-like robot from the "Demon with a Glass Hand" episode he wrote for The Outer Limits.

Orion paid Ellison off and gave him an acknowledgement credit in The Terminator, a decision the film's writer and director James Cameron totally disagreed with. According to Cameron, because he was still a new director he "had no choice but to agree with the settlement. Of course there was a gag order as well, so I couldn't tell this story, but now I frankly don't care. It's the truth. Harlan Ellison is a parasite who can kiss my ass."

Obviously that's still a sore spot with Cameron and it's easy to understand why. If you read Ellison's original story "Soldier From Tomorrow," or watch the episode of The Outer Limits  Ellison wrote based on that story, it's obviously the only similarity between these works is the general idea of a soldier travelling back in time. The same with the shared idea of a human-like robot or cyborg in both "Demon with a Glass Hand" and The Terminator. After watching The Terminator and seeing/reading the original works Cameron supposedly stole, one comes away feeling Orion Pictures paid off Ellison merely to make him go away, not because there was any merit to his claims.

The key point all authors and creators should remember is ideas are not protected by copyright. As the U.S. copyright office states, "Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work." 

As authors and readers and lovers of films, would we want it any other way? If someone could copyright the idea of spaceships, half of science fiction would vanish with a stroke of the lawsuit. If it was theft to write about quests for a magic item—say a ring—or modern vampires who look like cute pop music stars, the fantasy genre would likewise be in for hard times.

Plagiarism is a serious charge and I wish Ellison wouldn't throw the term around like it is nothing. Simply because an author has written on an idea Ellison once wrote about does not equal theft.

There's also a down-side to Ellison crying wolf so often. In that Wall Street Journal interview, Ellison is introduced as as the guy who "penned Soldier, which James Cameron drew from for The Terminator." With a single lawsuit Ellison has caused his own legacy to be rewritten. Instead of being remembered for his ground-breaking stories, Ellison is now the guy who wrote a story which somewhat inspired a movie.

To me, the rewriting of a great author's legacy is the only true theft going on here.