Copyright Infringement…or Racial Stereotyping?

Albrek's Tomb vs. Lord of the Rings

At left is the cover of M.L. Forman’s book Albrek’s Tomb; at left are two promotional photos featuring John Rhys-Davis as Gimli in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. Are the similarities copyright infringement — or racial stereotyping?

Our 11-year-old is reading a series of young adult fantasy novels called The Adventurer’s Wanted Series, by Utah-based author M.L. Forman. Kameron and I often read the stories aloud to each other — I read to him while he’s practicing juggling, or soaking in the tub after a workout in the gym, or he reads to me while I’m doing some mindless task around the house (chopping veggies for salad, combing out the dog, mending one of his juggling costumes, etc.).

After he read me a chapter from the first book in the series, I read the first three books. (The fourth book will be published in the next week or so.) My first reaction was that it was an interesting concept, that borrowed heavily from earlier works of high fantasy. Anyone like me who’s read a lot of great high fantasy, will recognize many of the situations and archetypical characters — the aloof and nearly immortal elves could have come straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien, and so could the crafty and treasure loving dwarves and their feud with the elves.

There is nothing wrong with taking themes from literature and making them your own, of course. If there were, few writers would have anything to write about, since most books deal with the same basic themes of romance, adventure, comedy, drama and tragedy. But the more I read of this series, the more I started to wonder if there wasn’t just a bit too much “borrowing” going on here.

For example, when you have a young dwarf named Thrain who longs to be an adventurer — and the physical description of Thrain makes him sound a lot like the character Thorin Oakenshield from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is it really a coincidence that Tolkien’s Thorin is the son of Thrain? And when the young hero Alex finds a mysterious magic ring in a cave, are we not supposed to think of Bilbo and that other ring?

Is it just coincidence when I read about a magic sword taking action on its own to counter a threat to Alex — and the passage reminds me strongly of a passage in Harry Potter? The number of words in the scene, and even the aftermath when Harry and Alex each tries to convince others that he didn’t do it, the wand or sword took independent action, seem eerily similar to me. (Compare the passage where Harry Potter describes his wand’s actions when confronted with Voldemort in the Battle of the Seven Potters scene at the beginning of Deathly Hallows and Alex’s first battle with Moon Slayer in The Horn of Moran to see what I mean.)

Forman even added wraiths called the shetani to his tale, and the description is eerily similar to Alan Dean Foster’s shetani in Into the Out Of.  Is that a coincidence, too? The globe-trotting Foster gives full credit for his shetani to the east African tribal elders who told him the traditional stories of the wraiths who have been part of African folklore for centuries. Forman never mentions his inspirations or sources — at least not in the books themselves.

I could go on with dozens of similar scenes in the first three books of Forman’s series that brought other books or movies to mind. But when I saw the cover art for the third book — and compared it with two signed photos of John Rhys-Davis as Gimli in The Fellowship of the Ring — I thought that Forman had gone too far, and actually crossed the line from unattributed inspiration to outright copyright infringement. When I posted the photo shown above on Facebook, and asked my Facebook friends if they thought it was copyright infringement, author Ray Audette made me laugh out loud with his pithy comment: “That’s not copyright infringement. It’s racial stereotyping.”

He could be right, of course. Maybe our collective consciousness just automatically calls up images of dwarves who look like Gimli whenever we think of what a mythical race of axe-weilding, treasure-obsessed miners might look like. I must be the only person to even think of a copyright issue since no one including the litigation happy J.K. Rowling or the film studios behind Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit has sued Forman.

(Note: Typically, authors have little control over the covers of their books, but no illustrator is credited with the cover art for Forman’s books, and I have read online that he is both the illustrator and author for the series.)

I guess the sad part for me is that the basic premise of Forman’s book is interesting enough to stand on its own. There’s no need for the many, many places in the book where I find phrases, names, and descriptions that sound as if they were drawn straight from other author’s works. The fact is that this writer doesn’t need to borrow from others — he’s quite good all on his own.

A good editor — or a careful publisher — might have been quite helpful in keeping the derivative content to a minimum, I think. I don’t know anything about Shadow Mountain (the imprint on the book) and little about R.R. Donnelley (the publisher). They’re not on any warning lists for SFWA or ASJA, so I assume they’re a reputable publishing company with lawyers who don’t think that anything in Mr. Forman’s series rises to the level of copyright infringement.

Kameron is waiting for the fourth book in the series — it’s what he asked for on his upcoming birthday — and I’m sure we’ll follow the series to its eventual end. (Foster says he is planning “seven or eight” books in the series.) But I’d have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t run into a reference every few pages that made me think of another author’s work.

Photo credit: The book cover is ©2012 by Mark L. Forman; the photographs from The Fellowship of the Ring are ©2001 by New Line Cinema. The photographs are from my personal collection of signed movie memorabilia, the book cover is a photo I took of the book we purchased at Barnes & Noble. I do not own the copyright, and am using the images solely for illustrative purposes, in what I believe to be Fair Use. Do not republish or reuse without permission of the copyright owner.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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