Recently Dark-Hunter author Sherrilyn Kenyon sued Shadowhunters author Cassandra Clare for “willfully copying” her novels. As a disclaimer, I have read only Clockwork Angel by Clare and nothing by Kenyon, so I have no personal take on the issue. However, I have seen a lot of Clare fans defending her work on the bases that the copying isn’t word for word, you can’t copyright ideas, and the authors just happen to be using the same tropes. Barring the implication that plagiarism limited to word for word copying and pasting (it’s not), these are valid points. However, the question of whether Kenyon has a case—or at least a legitimate complaint even if the letter of the law isn’t one her side—runs a little deeper than the question of whether anyone can “really” write anything original or we’re all just recycling tropes.
As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, if you’re going to be reductive about it, you can summarize just about any book to make it sound like 500 other books. “It’s a rag to riches story.” “A girl goes to a new high school and falls in love with a bad boy.” “A girl dresses up as a boy and trains to be a [insert traditionally male occupation].” This is the problem that Kenyon faces when trying to summarize the ways in which she believes her series and Clare’s are suspiciously similar. The document submitted summarizes the works by saying both “are about an elite band of warriors that must protect the human world from the unseen paranormal threat that seeks to destroy humans as they go about their daily lives.” (Source) Yes, this description could be about any number of fantasy books—but only because it’s vague and doesn’t take into account the characters and plot as a whole. It doesn’t do any particular book justice as a summary at all.
Kenyon does get more specific. She further alleges: “Both series employ a line of warriors who protect the normal world from demons … In both series, a young person becomes part of the Dark-Hunters’ (or Shadowhunters’) world after being saved by a gorgeous blonde Dark-Hunter (or Shadowhunter) … They each must kill their demonic father … Both Dark-Hunters and Shadowhunters have enchanted swords that are divinely forged, imbued with otherworldly spirits, have unique names, and glow like heavenly fire.” And this the place where things get sticky. Defenders of Clare point out these are all just tropes anyway. How many stories have you read where someone has a cool glowing sword? How many have you read where the protagonist turns out to have a paranormal parent? Surely Clare and Kenyon could have come up with these stories individually, just based on shared literary influences.
And, yes, there is no reason it isn’t possible they independently drew on the same literary tropes; however, that doesn’t make it irrational for readers to become suspicious if a large number of the same literary tropes appear in two works used in similar ways and presented in a similar order. If I write a book about a spunky orphan who gets adopted by a couple on a farm and goes on to become beloved by her new community even while getting into scrapes, it would make sense for people to wonder whether I was influenced by Anne of Green Gables, but there’s also the explanation that orphans are common in children’s literature, as are growing up stories, and there’s no reason my character can’t live on a farm. But if I write a book about a an orphan unhappy with her hair color who gets adopted by a brother and sister and then goes to on to become bosom friends with her next-door neighbor while getting into fights with a handsome and infuriating boy at school, it starts looking bad, even if the girl’s hair is blue and all the action takes place on an alien planet 3000 years in the future. There’s still no reason I couldn’t have come up with this on my own—Why wouldn’t she be friends with her neighbor? Why wouldn’t there be a handsome love interest? These are common themes in novels, after all! But the problem is the build-up of similarities, and thoughtful readers will know what my influence was.
I don’t know which case is closer to the situation between Kenyon and Clare. Yes, two people can write a book about someone being incorporated into a society to fight demons in the modern world, be given an instruction manual and a fiery sword to do so, and fall in love with one of their fellow Dark/Shadow hunters along the way. None of that is necessarily “original.” But the case will have to hinge on exactly how many tropes and “common ideas” the two series have in common and whether it seems more plausible that Clare would have gotten all her tropes from one main source—Kenyon—or more plausible that each author thought of and then incorporated them into their books independently.
Author Courtney Milan has uploaded the court documents to her website. Exhibit 3 lists plot and character depiction similarities Kenyon is alleging. Exhibits 4 and 5 try to make the case the trade dress of the series is similar.