Last year I wrote a spec episode of Grey’s Anatomy entitled “My Favorite Mistake” wherein platonic best friends, Izzie and George, hook up. I registered my script with the WGA and sent it in to be considered for the ABC writing fellowship. I never heard back from the fellowship (their loss, no biggie) but I was surprised to see that last Thursday’s episode shared a title (exactly the same) and a subplot as my spec.
I do not believe that Shonda and team copied my idea… but i do think it is possible that they could have inadvertently copied my title. They had the means, etc. So my question is a two parter: 1) should I do anything about this? and 2) where is the line drawn? Would my script have to be identical to the one broadcast to possibly be plagiarized?
— Jackie Honikman
I don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, so I looked up an episode guide online. One of the first things I noticed was that every episode is named after a song — that’s their thing, just like the title of every episode of Friends begins “The One With…”.
Being a good spec script writer, you followed their style and picked a song title. You chose a Sheryl Crow song. So did they. What are the odds?
Huge. So absurdly huge that you’re going to feel foolish in about three paragraphs.
I know you didn’t write in expecting to be ridiculed, so I want to give you a few sentences to prepare yourself. It’s not that I dislike you, Jackie, or disbelieve you. I’m sure when you first saw the episode title, you were surprised, hurt, disappointed and angry. These are natural emotions. But then the dark engines of your brain kicked in. You convinced yourself that through some byzantine process, your idea had been appropriated. But it hadn’t. It wasn’t.
You wrote your email at the end of March.1 So I’m hoping you’ve moved on, written other scripts, and laughed about how prescient you were. But in case you haven’t, I’m going to rip off the band-aid.
Let me restate your question:
I recently wrote a spec episode of Grey’s Anatomy. I worked very hard on making it exactly like the show, right down to the title. I was subsequently shocked — shocked! — to see that the writers of the show had the audacity to write an episode exactly like their own show. Who can I sue?
Put this way, your fallacy is clear — you’re confusing cause and effect. You think their “Favorite Mistake” is similar to yours because they somehow read and stole your idea, when in fact it’s similar because it’s frickin’ Grey’s Anatomy. You followed their conventions. You included their characters. You emulated their show as closely as you could.
You copied them, not vice-versa. Got it?
In terms of the title, given the show’s adult-contemporary demographics, it was pretty likely they were going to have a Sheryl Crow track sooner or later.2 As far as I can tell from the promos (and parodies) I’ve seen, the show is about young doctors hooking up and breaking up. “My Favorite Mistake” sounds like a good fit. They didn’t need your script to come up with that idea.3
In addition to the cause and effect problem, I think there’s also a fallacy of limited sampling. You’re looking at your script and the episode you saw. But if an independent reader had your script and 10 other spec scripts of the show to compare to the produced episode, would they really think yours was all that similar? I doubt it.4
Or as another test, a reader could compare your script to 10 produced episodes of the show. Would he be able to tell which one your script “influenced?” Again, doubtful.
Unfortunately, this misguided conflation of “similarity” and “plagiarism” is not confined to spec episodes of TV shows. One woman claimed that both The Matrix and The Terminator franchises were stolen from her work. She managed to attract a fair amount of media attention before her case was finally thrown out.
By targeting both The Terminator and The Matrix, this case helps point out what really underlies a lot of similarities between literary works: genre conventions. It’s one thing to put a killer robot in your script, but don’t claim you invented robots.5 Having a divorced cop who likes doughnuts is not original — and neither is having him hate doughnuts, or having him be psychic, or dead. Having two doctors hook up on a show about doctors hooking up doesn’t strike me as particularly original.
Again, Jackie, I’m not trying to belittle your feelings. It’s frustrating to spend weeks working on something, only to find a similar project already out there.
In my early days, I outlined a series that would chart the last years of Earth — a meteor was coming, and everyone knew it. So I was understandably disappointed when not one, but two movies with essentially the same plot hit theaters. It forced me to look back and remember where the idea really came from: a bunch of popular-science articles at the time which mapped out what had likely killed off the dinosaurs, and what would happen if another such asteroid hit Earth.
I soon realized that my having the same idea as giant blockbusters was actually a good thing. It meant I had commercial taste. A writer isn’t one script. A writer is someone who can write. Forty scripts later, my meteor idea isn’t even a footnote in my career. Don’t let your Grey’s Anatomy spec be anything more than something you wrote.
- People ask how long it takes me to answer a reader-submitted question. Generally, I read them all within the week they’re sent in, and flag the ones I think will be interesting and applicable to the readership. But it’s not a first-in-first-out process. Sometimes, a question will land in my inbox that I’ll answer within the hour. There’s a big element of serendipity. But that’s not an invitation to submit the same question multiple times. That will almost guarantee that I won’t answer, since I’ll think, “Didn’t someone else just ask that?” ↩
- In fact, the second episode was titled “The First Cut is the Deepest.” Sheryl Crow’s cover had topped the charts the year before. ↩
- A while back, a screenwriting colleague was dealing with a guy who was claiming on messageboards that a certain blockbuster was stolen from his script. The “proof?” One of the characters had the same name. Basically, the guy was arguing that the screenwriter had changed the plot, the setting, the character’s motivations — pretty much everything but this one character’s name. It’s hard to claim that a conspiracy is both thorough and lazy. ↩
- I’m sure this “fallacy of limited sampling” has a more official name, but I couldn’t find it. (It’s not the fallacy of generalization, which infers about a large population based on a too-small sample.) If anyone can link to the proper term, I’ll be much obliged. ↩
- The same goes for any variation of robot: friendly robot, suicidal robot, kleptomaniac robot, fatherly robot, existentially-angst-ridden robot. We can all think of other examples. ↩