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December 31, 2010


Ellison, probably more than anyone else, inspired me as a reader and made me want to be a writer. I read "I Have No Mouth" and the other stories collected with it when I was 11 years old and have never forgotten how astonished I was even at an age when I couldn't really understand a lot of it. The total effect of his body of work as an author and an editor so large that speculative fiction now would probably not be at all what it is had there never been a Harlan Ellison. I, too, hate to see him make these specious claims that people have ripped him off, and it's sad that his identifier in the article is the guy whose story vaguely had something to do with that movie. On the other hand, the other main way that he is always identified to people who don't know his work is as the guy who wrote that Star Trek episode (another subject of much acrimony on his part). As huge as his impact has been on the literature and as great as his own work is, a lot of people just don't know who he is. So he becomes the guy who wrote "Soldier" or the guy who wrote for Star Trek or the guy who files a lot of law suits. He's not going to be around much longer and probably won't write or publish anything else (he says he is going to burn all his unpublished manuscripts). That's very sad to me. And it's sad to me when I encounter a reader of spec fic or really any kind of American literature at all who does not know Ellison's work. In fact, such people have more than once threatened to push me into an Ellisonian rage where I want to scream at the pop fic reader or the academic lit snob, "He is probably the single greatest American short fiction author and fantasist of the last fifty years and YOU don't know who he is!" So he becomes identifiable more as the crank who sues over movies. Well, the other legacy--the one that I would like him to be remembered for--persists regardless whether enough people know about it or not.

Curious, Jason, that you tell only Cameron's side of the story, and not Ellison's--specifically, Ellison's assertion Cameron ADMITTED to ripping off "Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand."

This stuff is easy to find with a cursory Internet search:


Without looking into it, I had always just assumed the Terminator rip off of Ellison was from "I Have No Mouth...". An advanced computer intelligence, with origins in the Cold War, becomes self-aware and proceeds to wipe out the human race -- that sounds like Skynet to me.

If Cameron admits in public that he ripped off Ellison, that is one thing. Instead we have Cameron denying it in no uncertain terms. As for what Ellison said in that video, I don't know if that is the truth or not. It is merely his version of what he claims someone said. I also did give Ellison's view--his lawsuit and claims are his view of the situation.

The more important point in all this is that you can not claim the exclusive right to an idea as an author. Probably what Cameron told Ellison is their stories have similar ideas and Ellison inspired him. But there's no way to know the truth on that, but that video linked to above says Cameron came up with the idea for Terminator while watching The Outer Limits so there's probably some truth to this. There were also similar claims against Cameron after Avatar came out, that his story used SF ideas others authors had written about. But again this isn't stealing. One can't copyright ideas.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't give credit to previous authors and works which inspired you. But to scream theft when no theft occurs is wrong.

Gee, James Cameron didn't announce to the news media, "Yes, I'm a thief, I admit it! Oh that Harlan got me good!" What a surprise.

The larger point I'm making here is that you can't copyright ideas. Plagiarism and theft are about more than using the same idea as exists in another author's story.

But I'm curious as to people's thoughts on Ellison claiming Cormac McCarthy ripped him off. Any comments on that?

Haven't read Boy and his Dog in long enough to make a comparison.

Speculative fiction is loaded with shared ideas. It's a conversation of shared ideas--even the details. I was a bit surprised when the term "ansible" started showing up in the stories of many different authors in the eighties and nineties, but nobody seemed to be bothered by it, and of course "orcs" are everywhere in gaming. After my daughter saw Avatar she called to report its similarities to my novel Deception Well. I was amused. Ideas evolve and recur in new places all the time. If we all had to be utterly original nothing would get written (or if it did, no one would understand it).

I'm surprised that commentators are quick to pick a side. How can anyone write post-apocalyptic anything without drawing from other works that treat the same broad subject?

There's a reason they don't copywrite ideas and you hit on it.

Unfortunately I am not well read in Ellison's works to comment on whether McCarthy ripped him off, but after reading The Passage, I'm sure plenty of authors/screenwriters could make the case that Justin Cronin ripped them off. The reality is, there are certain tropes that seem to go hand in glove with the post apocalyptic world (surviving colonies, ingenuity, chosen ones, searching out others, return to more basic codes of honor, to name a few).

We've been recycling ideas since The Epic of Gilgamesh. There's nothing new under the sun. Etc. The challenge is to present those tropes in such a way that will appeal to readers (i.e., be fresh enough to keep them interested).

If Ellison is guilty of repeatedly claiming to have been ripped off, then, as you say, he loses credibility each time. Even if it's true.

>>"I don't know if that is the truth or not."

Assuming I grant this point for the sake of argument, what you're left with is Cameron's word against Ellison's. So why is Cameron's word any better? Clearly, because it fits your narrative.

>>"The larger point I'm making here is that you can't copyright ideas."

Jason, this is a classic straw man. No one is arguing otherwise, not even Harlan Ellison. Consider this Ellison quote, also in regard to the Cameron situation, also quite easy to find:

"[Had] Cameron ever indicated word-one that he wanted to try my idea a different way, I'd have said THAT'S WHAT ARTISTS DO! They acknowledge the source, and do their own thing."

Does that sound like Ellison arguing that his ideas are copyrighted?

>>"I'm curious as to people's thoughts on Ellison claiming Cormac McCarthy ripped him off. Any comments on that?"

Given that Harlan hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, sued Cormac McCarthy, and further given that the article you linked to was NOT about Ellison making any kind of plagiarism or copyright infringement claim, I would consider it a throwaway line that doesn't deserve half as much attention as you've given it.

I'm not taking either Ellison or Cameron's word on The Terminator issue. I read and watched Ellison's original story and episodes and also Cameron's movie; as someone who loves science fiction and has a decent knowledge of it, my opinion is that The Terminator did not rip off Ellison's work. But that's merely my opinion and, as I noted, Orion Pictures did agree to give Ellison credit.

As for the Cormac McCarthy line, I did state that Ellison may have been joking. But when this is added to his history with the Terminator, I'd guess he is serious. We'll just have to see if he takes this complaint further. But as someone who has read and loved both The Road and A Boy and His Dog, my opinion is that there is also no copying in this instance.

McCarthy ripped off A Boy and His Dog for The Road?! Ridiculous. Pathetic. Absolutely without foundation, and just another bent nail in the coffin of Harlan's rep and legacy. He makes me so mad. Why doesn't he finish one of his damn unseen opuses? Instead he prefers to yell "Thief, thief," at the end of his days.

Yay, Google cache. Not the first time Ellison has had his day in the twilight:


I feel almost exactly the same way about Harlan. He was a huge influence on me as a teenager. I became a storyteller in large part from hearing him read aloud, both his own stories and those of others. I've actually met him a number of times and enjoyed his company. He's a brilliant, amazing writer and a royal pain in the ass, and I too wish he would shut the hell up about how he OWNS ideas. Sorry Harlan, but nobody OWNS an idea. As detailed here, copyright covers the actual story as written, not the ideas contained therein. If Cameron ever did say he took the idea from Harlan he'd be an idiot, because there isn't a soul in Hollywood who doesn't know that once Harlan sinks his teeth into your leg, he won't let go. But even so, he wouldn't have violated copyright, as the story in "The Terminator" is substantially different from that in either of Ellison's earlier tales.

Much as I love Harlan's work, he's just dead wrong on this whole issue, and the rise of this attitude in the writing world is a sad thing to see. "Ownership" of ideas is like a bucket of cold water on the passion of creativity - if we start assigning ownership this way, pretty soon it'll be impossible to write a story at all, since somebody somewhere will be able to sue you to hell and back for "stealing" the idea of, say, creating a human out of spare parts, or a migrant family heading west to look for work, or the last of a Native tribe seeing his son killed while saving a white woman, or a little girl loving her robot nanny more than her own family. Where would it ever end?

I'm a big fan of Harlan Ellison, but I admit he's a bit of an ass. I've stated many times over the last 15 years or so that Ellison is immortal, because even if he did die, he'd just sue Death over the inconvenience.

> 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.

But he didn't. Ellison never accused Cormac of plagiarism nor did he use the word "theft". He simply said Cormac "ripped off" Ellison's story. He didn't even claim copyright violation. He's talking about the ripping off of ideas, which is a lazy, potentiall unethical practice, but not an illegal one.

I'm quick to pick a side because although Ellison is a great writer and I've enjoyed his stories, his public comments make it obvious that he's a huge dickbag.

SF *is* full of this sort of thing. Compare Hell Tanner in Zelazny's "Damnation Alley" with Snake Plissken, for example.

Ellison is a long out-of-print blowhard whose "huge influence" will die out with those people who actually read his stuff.

Time has moved on, and left Ellison behind in the 1970s. Try to find anything he's written in a bookstore.

I can't help but agree with Fabulous Ray. I was never impressed by any of Ellison's stories, and was far more overwhelmed by how turned off I was by his constant crowing about his awesomeness and what - if you were clever enough - you might glean from his tales (in those anthologies where he provides commentary before each story).

The fact that he calls out other writers for theft of his ideas, which upon reading the stories is pretty damn hard to support, just goes to underline what an arrogant ass he is.

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