Copyright: ‘the legal right given to the originator of a piece of work, for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic or musical material’.
Basically the author/composer/creator etc is legally entitled to create and publish their own work for a fixed period of time,
Plagiarism: ‘the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own’.
For example: if I were to create an episode of Breaking Bad, using the character names, title theme and storylines and published the episode for profit I would be plagiarising the television show. I cannot do this until the required number of years have passed for this series’ copyright protection to expire, at which time it will enter the ‘public domain’ Plagiarism can result in legal repercussions as the original owner of that work has the legal entitlements and can sue if their work is copied.
A noticeable example of a popular ‘plagiarism’ debate in popular media is The Griffin family of Family Guy being accused as a ‘rip-off’ of The Simpson family of The Simpsons.
If you happened to read my post ‘Lucky There’s A Family Guy’… written for BCM110, you would be aware that I myself, before looking into the copyright topic was quite aware of similarities between the two families. I wrote, ‘Family Guy is an adult animation with a similar design to a television show you’ve definitely heard of; ‘The Simpsons’, only Homer is even more inappropriate, Marge has less concern for the family, Bart is a bigger slob, Lisa has more insecurities, Maggie is basically the epitome of improper and evil, oh and Santa’s Little Helper can talk and is essentially the most stable character on the show.’ And it’s not just the two families themselves that fans and even the creators themselves have noticed as being ‘similar’.
In a crossover episode, released in 2014 The Simpsons and The Griffins meet for the first time, the two family matriarchs go to Moe’s Tavern and Homer realises that Peter’s favourite beer ‘Pawtucket’ is just a rip-off is his favourite beer ‘Duff’, in fact Pawtucket has just placed a new label over the original Duff label on the bottle. Homer decides to take the plagiarism case to court. Peter defends his favourite beer, saying that Pawtucket ‘might have been inspired by Duff… but he likes to think it goes in a different direction’. This is a reference to Family Guy creators and fans defending the fact that Family Guy may have taken a little inspiration from The Simpsons, but they are definitely two different types of shows, especially when factoring in the humour.
This being said, has Family Guy ever been sued for plagiarism? Yes, but not by The Simpsons.
The thing is, there needs to be enough evidence that something has been plagerised for the creator/composer/author etc to sue. If The Simpsons had pursued the issue further, they may have been able to find enough evidence, but the creators have confessed to being ‘friends’ and that there is ‘no rivalry between their two shows’.
If Family Guy creator had named his title character ‘Homer’ and the family dog ‘Santa’s Little Helper’ then this may be an entirely different story, but in Family Guy’s defense there is very little similarities between the shows once you take out that the two families are similar in structure. The structure in itself is often considered the ‘All American Family’ anyway, which has made in a popular arrangement in television and film.