Who Owns A Story?

Last week I finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  And for the record, I wept like a baby through the last two chapters of Mockingjay.  I had been told by several people that I had to read the series but I was reluctant at first.  I always cringe a little bit when a series becomes so hyped.  Of course the last time I hesitated to get involved in a series because of the hype was Harry Potter, and I now list those as among my favorite books ever.  I loved The Hunger Games too.  But several people told me that the second and third books weren’t as good as the first.  My best friend went so far as to tell me that a lot of people she knows didn’t like Mockingjay because of “one thing that happens”.  I’m still not sure what thing she meant, but it made me think….

Who owns a story?  To whom does the story belong?  Books, obviously, belong to the author.  There are all sorts of copyright laws that spell this out.  You can’t plagiarize and you can’t use an author’s characters or plotlines for your own work.  Likewise it’s clear that any tangible hunk of paper and ink that is called a book belongs to the person who purchased it.  But who owns the story?

As I was reading Mockingjay with the expectation that I wouldn’t like it as much as the other two books in the series I continually found myself thinking “I wouldn’t have had the characters do that.”  If it had been up to me the plot would possibly have gone in a different direction.  Well, maybe.  Because in the end I handed my trust over to Suzanne Collins and let her take the story where it wanted to go.

So the author owns the story, right?  It’s their story.  They wrote it.  They decide where the plot goes and how the characters unfurl.  They are the mastermind that creates the magic.  …  But wait.  That makes them the Creator of the story.  Do they own it?

I grew up on Winnie-the-Pooh.  My childhood memories are tinted with “silly old bear”.  I played Pooh-sticks at the bridge over the creek down the hill from my house with my friends on a regular basis.  I had a fascination with honey.  My grandmother had a set of antique stuffed animals of all of the characters that I loved to play with every time I went to her house (especially Roo – I loved that Roo!).  So does A.A. Milne own my childhood play time?  Or did his stories, his characters, transcend the words he put on pages, sent to an editor, and had printed on paper with ink?

I feel a sense of ownership for a lot of stories, not just Winne-the-Pooh.  It’s something that extends far beyond copyright law and legal concerns.  Those stories have settled in my heart.  Obviously I have a special place in my heart for the stories I’ve written.  But I’ve already seen pieces of that ownership slip away as my friends read my work.  I have a character, Jack Tanner from my Noble Hearts trilogy, that my one friend in particular just loves.  It’s flattering to me that she now owns a bit of that story because of her love for Jack.  It’s cool.  And a bit weird.  Jack is no longer just a figment of my imagination.  He’s gone beyond that. (and how weird is it that as I typed that my “Jack Song”, Whistle for the Choir by the Fratellis, started playing on my iTunes!)

I’ve always felt like the stories I write are like children.  I bring them into this world, I nurture them until they can stand on their own, and then I have to send them off into the world to make their own way.  When we send our human children out into the world we lose a big chunk of our ownership of them.  Sure, they’ll always be our babies, but at the same time they’re not anymore.  I will retain the legal rights to my books when they are published, but the stories … the stories go far beyond that.  If I’m lucky they will enter other people’s hearts and imaginations and a piece of them will become theirs.

Stories are a joint-ownership venture.  We all own a bit of them.

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3 thoughts on “Who Owns A Story?

  1. I love how you expressed this idea- I did not think of it in this way, but this is so true. The stories that we come to love become part of us and so they become “ours” and we own a little piece of them. They mean something to everyone who loves them (or even hates them) and so they are “owned” or held by different people in different ways.

    I remember growing up with Pooh Bear too and my sister especially loved him. When we got ready for school in the morning, we would watch the show on TV and did not get to watch the whole thing because we had to catch the school bus, so I would continue the story on my own, making up what came next and telling my sister. Thus, the story became ours and is a fond memory I look back on. She enjoyed hearing the story and we both revelled in the magic of the story that was now ours.

  2. Interesting notion. I agree that it’s funny how our stories mean something to us, but then they take on a new life for someone else. For example, one of my Blood of the Dragon characters, who I was kind of meh about, became one of my friend’s absolute favorite characters and she fell in love with him. Even though I wrote the story, it meant something different to her, and that’s the way it is for everyone.

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