A Tale of Twin Books

Here’s a bit of the bunny-eat-bunny world that I’d put out of my mind up until recently. A terrific cartoonist I follow blogged about people stealing his ideas, and it brought back memories. Twice in my 35 year career, I felt that an idea I submitted had been stolen. I knew that we could not copyright an idea, but these examples went beyond just the idea. The first was a greeting card design and gag I sent to a company. The submission was rejected, and the exact gag was published by them a year later: the same illustration (different artist of course), and the same caption.

I called them on it, and the artist (now world-famous) told me to buzz off, it was just a coincidence. Many years later, I submitted a storyboard for a nonfiction book idea about animal feet. It was rejected after the interested editor sat on it for nearly two years. A year later, they published it with a different author/illustrator. I called them on it. The a/i was rude to me, and the editor was kind and apologetic. But again, it was just a coincidence, including my layout, text, and design, which of course I thought were pretty unique!

Apparently not.

But here is a really amazing story.

Dinosaur Dream was published by Putnam in 1988. It had been delayed a bit because of a publishing house buy-out, but was finally released and received very nice reviews even though I was not a best-selling author/illustrator (which became important a few years later). Then in 1990, I got a call from my nephew. He’d spotted a new book with the same title at a local bookstore. When he looked closely, he was appalled at all the similarities.

Titles can’t be copyrighted either. And while it was interesting that the books were exactly the same size and format (not a commonly used format at the time because of library shelving issues), hey, dinosaurs need a horizontal format.

Unfortunately, while I wanted to share images here for comparison, I realized that, ironically, I could be sued for copyright infringement. So, you can see the two book covers. The rest is up to your imagination unless both books are in your local library.

The similarities didn’t stop with the title and size. While our illustration styles are nothing alike, both little boys had a square-themed dinosaur quilt on their beds. They both had a stuffed dinosaur friend. They both had posters of dinosaurs. They both wore red dinosaur pajamas. While all of this could be expected of a child obsessed with dinosaurs, the boys also both had orange hair, and, they had wooden four-poster beds, not a very common style for a child. They both lived in white horizontal clapboard style houses with the same style bedroom windows.

In both books, the story begins one evening at bedtime when a boy is greeted by an apatosaur at his window. My book was wordless, with a simple theme of a boy traveling with the apatosaur back into the land of dinosaurs. The newer version had a written story, and the same theme occurred. The two books had many amazingly similar illustrations throughout. And, at the end of the 32 page picture books, both featured a diagram that identified all the dinosaurs in the stories.

After this book was brought to my attention, all that I remember is being contacted by the author and talking to him on the phone, so apparently I made a stink of some kind. But it was, once again, explained as a coincidence. Great minds think alike, etc. And honestly, I knew there was no way I could even think about a lawsuit, even though my family and friends insisted on it. There truly are coincidences like this in the book business and elsewhere. Proving that this was more than that would be an uphill battle, and no way could I afford an attorney. Plus I had no intention of ending my career at that point, which would have been a distinct possibility. Remember, it’s a bunny-eat-bunny world out there in KidLit.

In any case, I chose to believe that this was not theft. The author was very gracious and kind to me. We exchanged signed books and never spoke of it again. I decided to believe that nobody would be so blatantly arrogant and self-confident of their own talent and fame that they would deliberately take a published book from an unknown newbie like me, make it their own, and publish it, and while my book was still in print! I preferred not to allow that possibility into my little gnawed-on bunny head. Besides, my book did pretty well, and sometimes I joked that perhaps bookstores thought they were ordering the other, more popular one, and wound up with mine instead.

That would have been funny.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. susanjerde says:

    Hi Robin, I’m glad that we have the original and the best Dinosaur Dream- enjoyed by all our grandchildren. I went to comment in my usual fashion and came to a pop-up page of  “sponsored content”- never seen that before- is it supposed to be there? I thought WordPress freed you of all that. The annual fee for my Wix site keeps going up- but a lot of work to rebuild it on a cheaper platform. Hope all is well with you and Marvin- maybe we can bring Freya out for a farm tour some time.  Spring is here- the calendar says so.  Susie

    1. Robin Koontz says:

      Hi Suz! Thank you! I downgraded back to a free account that shows ads. I never saw the advantage of the ad-free version, given that most other websites show them. I hope the ads somehow are a tie in to the subject at hand, i.e. in this case, attorneys who represent artists who have been ripped off.

      1. susanjerde says:

        Well the content was suvs, diet tips and breast reduction- the usual internet fare. I should look into that with Wix- my site is pristine, but nobody ever looks at it.

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