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You Can't Copyright Ideas
By Lois Sprengnether

Editor's note: the following thought-provoking article was sent to me by storyteller Lois Sprengnether in answer to my call for tips on how to craft a classic folktale for today's use.

There's a saying that "you can't copyright ideas." Look at Shakespeare to see the truth of the saying. Whether our tellings have Shakespeare's genius or not, I leave up to the audience. (Fortunately the folk form doesn't require such literary genius.) Folklorists have both a standard Tale Type, developed by Antti Aarne, and a motif index, such as Stith Thompson developed. This lets variants be searched and compared.

Storytellers may find the appeal of setting a familiar tale in a different locale with characters and other specifics tempting. This may not be the most authentic version of the story that would appeal to a folklorist or other purist, but it can have impact with a specific audience by tying it to their own situation. While it takes the story away from its origins, it is also part of the process that created all those variants over the ages and so it, too, is part of the folk process.

In addition, those Tale Types and motifs can serve as a launching point, inspiring a story that takes off in a different direction or tells the viewpoint of someone other than the usual main character. John Scieszka's successful picture book, The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf is a literary example of this. By thinking about the problems and point of view of a character, or even object in a story, you may decide the original tale is unnecessary and need not show its roots.

In the Scieszka tale, showing the contrast with the original tale is part of the fun. To do this properly you need to know as much as you can about the character upon which you focus. Remember that the feelings of this character motivate it and will lead it to whatever action or inaction it takes to resolve the problem forming your story's motif. Those feelings will be what your audience will either echo or contrast.

Just using the list of motifs and peopling it in a setting of your choice is yet another way to develop your own folk tale. If ever you were to find the truth to "You can't copyright ideas," this is the place. A quick scan of the motifs shows how omnipresent such tales are. For example Category "L", Reversal of Fortune, has these five options:

  • victorious youngest child
  • unpromising hero or heroine
  • modesty brings reward
  • triumph of the weak and
  • pride brought low.

Whatever idea here reminds you of an incident in your own past or that of someone you know, or just interests you, can result in an all new story inspired by its folk roots. To make the point even more obvious, go to Category "T", Sex, and think about its major categories of:

  • love
  • marriage
  • married life
  • chastity and celibacy
  • illicit sexual relations
  • conception and birth
  • care of children.

Authors from Shakespeare (oh, yes, before him, too), best sellers, and soap operas have all used those topics. The motif index goes into greater detail on each of those major categories, so if the broad category doesn't spark your imagination try some of the subgroups within that category. To use the last category, "care of children," as something likely to lead to my favorite type of folktale, the tall tale:

  • supernatural growth
  • precocious speech
  • substitute for a child and
  • each likes his own child best

This leads to an example where a prize is offered to the prettiest child. My mind loves to take things to their most illogical extreme, so if a contest was offered for the ugliest child, it pictures a variety of silly, far-fetched children with their parents each hoping to win fame and fortune from their offspring who probably resemble their equally odd parents.

The tall tale format is a specific style of folktale that especially benefits from brainstorming the wildest possible options. Legends, wonder tales, pourquois (origin) tales each are specific styles of folktales that have their own conventional ways of dealing with a topic like parents liking their own child best. The legendary Finn MacCool is saved by taking him to live in a hollow tree for his first five years and then he is trained to claim the place of his murdered father. The wonder tale's Sleeping Beauty copes with the gifts of the fairies her parents invited or ignored. And, the pourquoi tale gives the origin of Sleeping Bear Dunes, saying they were formed by a mother bear trying to save her cubs from a forest fire. Look at the biblical tale of Jacob and Esau and how it continues to play out in the Middle East for yet another example.

Stories are all around us. Sometimes the tales just need us prodding our imagination to let them out.

Lois Sprengnether has been a storyteller-librarian since 1971. You can contact her at:
5640 Farley Road, Clarkston, MI 48043


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