books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What if Somebody Steals Your Plot?

I often hear from new writers who are afraid their plots will be stolen if they talk about their books online or in critique groups.

But I tell them to rest easy. Writers have a lot to be wary of these days—faux agents, bogus publishers, e-book pirates, content mills, James Frey—but plot-purloiners should not be high on the list.

Consider the old saying: “There are no new stories, just new ways of telling them.”

Experts don’t agree on the exact number of narrative plots, but there aren’t many. In the 19th century, Georges Polti listed 36 “Dramatic Situations.” In 1993, Roland Tobias counted 20 “Master Plots,” and in 2005, Christopher Booker compressed the list to 7 “Basic Plots.” Miss Snark said there were 6, and I found a recent article in Author Magazine that listed only 5. The number seems to be shrinking.

But everybody agrees it is finite. So—no matter how original your story feels to you, somebody has probably told it before. Maybe last week. And they didn’t steal it. They thought it up just the way you did.

It’s amazing how often an idea that sprouts in your brain from the seeds of your own imagination can take root in other people’s brains at the same time. This is because human minds often respond in similar ways to prevailing news stories, music, weather patterns or whatever—and end up generating similar thoughts.

Evolutionary biologists call this phenomenon a “meme.” The term—from the Greek mimema—meaning something imitated—was coined by biologist  Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. He observed that certain stories, melodies, catch phrases and fashions can flash through a whole culture in a short amount of time.

This explains why we can’t copyright ideas. Everybody has them. Very often the same ones.

Unfortunately, new writers don’t always realize this, and they can embarrass themselves with plot-theft paranoia. That’s why you never want to mention copyright in a query letter. It red-flags you as an amateur.

Of course, if you’re having severe anxiety about it, and you’re sure nobody ever thought of mixing classic fiction with B-movie paranormal creatures, you can copyright your logline for “Pride and Prejudice meets Poltergeist.” Just don't mention it when you pitch your book.

This is because delusions about the uniqueness of story ideas can get pretty off-the-wall.

Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware wrote last month about a guy who was trying to sell his plot idea on ebay for ten million dollars. Really. I’m not making this up. You can read his amazing offer right here: He said, “It can be compared to stories like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Matrix, Indiana Jones…and will bring in endless fame and money to anyone who takes it.”  

And he’s not the only starry-eyed doofus who’s combined delusions of grandeur with total cluelessness about the effort required to actually write a novel or screenplay.

In the thread of the same post, children’s author Kathleen Duey said,

“I have been approached SO many times by people who want me to buy a story, or who are willing to share half the proceeds if I will just do the writing. I never know what to say. I am not rude, but...really? Try that split on any other kind of business person. ‘I think that a colony on Mars would be awesome and I am willing to give a 50% share of all eventual proceeds to anyone who can make it happen.’ I am always careful to walk away, if that's what it takes, to keep anyone from telling me the idea…just in case I ever write something similar by accident.”

I’ll bet a lot of you have been approached in a similar way. I sure have.

In fact, I have a feeling this delusion is as old as writing itself. I imagine Virgil probably met a guy at the Emperor Augustus’s orgy who said—

“You’re a writer? Hey, I’ve got this idea for a book about a guy who sails around the Mediterranean. Meets up with big storms. Monsters. Some hot nookie. You can write it down and we’ll split the proceeds 50-50.”

I hope Virgil had a good lawyer. Kathleen Duey’s instinct to run is excellent. These people can get scary.

When somebody approaches me with this “proposition,” I say, “The going rate for ghostwriters is $50-$100 an hour. I don’t provide that service, but I can get you a referral.”

I don’t want to be mean, but they need to understand that most writers have plenty of story ideas of our own. Our biggest fear is not living long enough to write them all.

But what do you do when somebody does publish a book that’s similar to yours? Even if they didn’t literally “steal” it, you can feel kind of ripped off.

Don’t despair. Memes can work in your favor. If you’re writing the final draft of  your Pride and Prejudice/Poltergeist mash-up, and somebody else sells a Pride and Prejudice/Gremlins mash-up, you’re now part of a trend. Publishers tend to be sheep. If the first book is popular, they’ll want another.

And if yours is better, you’re way ahead. As the above quote says, you can’t tell a new story; but you can tell it in a new way. It’s not about being first. You can be pretty sure you’re not.

In fact, I’ll bet some guy told Virgil when he first pitched the Aeneid, “A lost dude sails around the Mediterranean after the Trojan War having adventures? Sorry, that’s been done. Haven’t you heard of that Homer guy’s story, the Odyssey?”

Did Virgil steal Homer’s plot? I suppose you could say he did. But it doesn’t seem to have hurt sales for either of them for the last couple of millennia. It’s the telling that makes each story unique. And that’s going to be true of your story, too. It’s not about the plot. It’s about the writing. Nobody can steal that. 

Well, except e-book pirates, but that's another blogpost.

So what about you, scriveners? Are you afraid somebody will steal your idea? Would you ever pay for somebody else’s? Have you ever been approached by one of these “here’s my idea; you write it and let’s go 50/50” people? How did you handle it?
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I want to give a special welcome all the new followers and commenters here! I’m feeling awfully lucky to have been quoted and retweeted by so many industry professionals this week. Special thanks to KindleNation , Jane Friedman , CNN’s Porter Anderson , and Quotes4Writers .

47 comments:

  1. Great post on the subject! I don't worry about this Heck, I get ideas when reading another author's work. It's not that I'm stealing their idea, but a new idea sprouts from their work. And my words will make the idea completely different.

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  2. “You’re a writer? Hey, I’ve got this idea for a book about a guy who sails around the Mediterranean. Meets up with big storms. Monsters. Some hot nookie. You can write it down and we’ll split the proceeds 50-50.”

    We've all heard this a million times because most/many people simply don't understand what writers actually do.

    An example? Here you go:

    When my husband and I were first married, we invited my FIL to visit.
    This was in the pre-computer days and my FIL heard the clacking of my typewriter keys. He walked into the room and said with a delighted and amazed expression, "Oh, *now* I understand what you do."

    He was an unusually intelligent man, but he was clueless & Michael and I still laugh about it. Truman Capote once said something like "There are writers and then there are typists."

    Truman was right. So many people simply have no idea of what writers actually do. They really think we just sit down and type.

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  3. I certainly didn't worry about anyone stealing my idea because I knew it wasn't original to begin with - just my take on a classic story.

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  4. Great post. I agree. There are no new plots, just how you tell the story. And the difference in all of 'em is you, the author.

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  5. I've had this reaction, yes. It's right up there with "Where do you get your ideas?" The good thing is that nine times out of ten, what they proceed to tell me isn't a story. It's a setting, or it's a character, or it's something, but it's not a story. Story is about unmet wants, and they're not telling me about someone who says "I want, but..."

    So, nine times out of ten, I can explain the difference between story and setting, and they get a glaze in their eyes and go off seeking a fresh cocktail, telling people "Hey, see that weird bearded guy over there? Looks like a cross between Gandalf and the creeper you warn your daughters about? Stay clear. Stay very clear."

    And the tenth time, when it is a story? Oddly enough, it still works. If you can't dazzle 'em with your brilliance, baffle 'em with your bull-, uh, balony.

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  6. Damn it, Anne, I was just about to post on this exact topic. You stole my idea...

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  7. Yes, I've been wary about sharing ideas online for this reason. It's not easy to get over, even if you have plenty of sensible reasons. But the reverse can be true too - I don't know how many times I've come up with a great idea entirely on my own, and then discovered that somebody already wrote a very similar plot for a book or TV episode years and years ago. It's not enough to make me drop the idea, but it does make me wince a little at the thought that someone might assume I plagiarized it. :)

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  8. I'm not worried about someone having a similar plot. After all, there are only 4 basic plot lines in regency romance, and look how many zillions of those are popular.

    You can copy my plot all you want, just don't copy my voice!

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  9. Julie--I have that happen, too. Sometimes I'll read a book and hate the ending. So I'll think of a similar story with a better ending. And by the time I've worked on it for a few days, it bears no resemblance to the thing that inspired it.

    Ruth--Great story. You're so right. I once actually had somebody ask me why it took so long to write a book. "My mom types 70 words a minute," he said.

    Alex--I think new takes on classic stories are what sell best. Certain stories are naturally interesting to humans.

    E.--You're right. The most important ingredient is YOU.

    Levi--I think you're right. Most people's ideas for a "story" are mostly world-building, or character sketches. Story is way harder than most people know.

    Neil--LOL.

    Elisabeth--As I said, somebody could accuse Virgil (or almost any great author) of plagarizing. Shakespeare stole from everybody. But it's all about the writing, not the ideas, so rest easy.

    AM--I hadn't thought about it, but Regency novels do have a limited # of plots. But what a richness of character and detail each writer can bring. Some people read nothing else.

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  10. There is a theory that there is no such thing as original thought ... that it is all "universal" and what we think of today was someone's thought a hundred years ago or another's thougth ten minutes from now.

    I think you and several of your commentors covered it perfectly. It makes a difference what you do with the thought. In different generations, separated by decades and thousands of written words, JR Tolkein and JK Rawlings ... and to a degree stories from Celt Folklore created worlds within other worlds, the wee-folk, the magicians, the seers and the evil-doers. These may all be universal characters, but Oh, the lovely difference in each version.

    That is what makes this blog so special and gain recognition ... you might say what others have said or thought before or after ... but your unique way of presenting ideas and couching each set of circumstances is what makes you a cut above the rest of us.

    As always, another wonderful Sunday post :)

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  11. I like quoting ghostwriter rates-- I hadn't thought of that one.

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  12. I've never had anyone ask me to write their story and split the profits. Can I steal your answer about the prices? That's a good one.
    I have heard the numbers for plot possibilities. It's amazing to read them and then see how every book you've ever read fits into one of them.

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  13. I have always believed that though I share similar physical characteristics with several billion others, none of those several billion ever fell in love exactly the same way or grieved the same or danced identically. It is my one in eight billion set of life experiences that governs the voice in which I recount my stories. Yes, we all are born, we live, and we die, but between those shared parameters, I can share stories uniquely mine.

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  14. I was so sure I had a unique last line to my first novel: Ah well... That was the line. Then I read a Carol Shields novel and guess what her last line was! I eventually felt quite impressed with my self. I came up with the same last line as Carol Shields!!

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  15. Great post, and I just love Kathleen Duey. You really did an excellent job on this. I still prefer to keep any information on my WIPS vague except for trusted crit partners and beta readers. There may be only a few storylines in the world, but each person's twist is what makes it fresh.

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  16. Anne - I don't agree that writers shouldn't worry about people stealing their plots. I've read 36 Dramatic Situations, and yes, if your plot is as general as "Boy meets girl" then you shouldn't worry, but if it's much more specific and it's a good idea, then I would keep it to yourself. That doesn't mean you should try to sell it on eBay (that was totally ridiculous, and I'm hoping a hoax) or to be vain enough to think another writer would want to buy it, but people do steal ideas, so why risk yours?

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  17. I find it amazing someone would make an offer like that to a writer. As if a writer can't come up with their own plot.... lol... it's what we do! DUH! Peeps are so funny.

    And truth is, most other writers are so concerned with getting their own story right, they're not worried about stealing someone else's.

    NIce to meet you, Anne. I hopped over from Florence Fois's blog. :)

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  18. Reminds me of the line in "The Social Network, wherein the Zuckerberg character says of the Winklevoss twins, during a deposition, something like, "If they invented Facebook, they would have invented it."

    Story ideas = actual story. Big difference.

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  19. Absolutely right on. I never worry about someone stealing my idea or story. Agree with Karen G. Now I have a line when people approach me and want me to write "their" story. It happens all the time.

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  20. I've heard that there are only TWO basic plots: 1.) A stranger comes to town, and 2.) Someone goes on a journey. ;-)

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  21. Great post. I have never been had the 50/50 split request but I do have people who tell me they have ideas of what I should write about on my blog and that I can use it if I give them credit. Weird.

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  22. Fois--Aw shucks, thanks. I agree completely in "universal" thought and Jung's theory of the Collective Unconscious. Every one has a unique take, but the basic ideas remain the same.

    Karen G--Feel free to quote me. Those rates are from the Editorial and Freelancers Association.

    Susan--Some day somebody will make that proposition--I can almost guarantee it. And yes, you may use the line.

    Judith--Very well put.

    Christine--What a great way to look at it!

    Tricia and Meghan--I agree that we each have a unique twist to put on the classic plots, and keeping that to yourself isn't a bad idea. TMI is never a good idea when you're working on a new project. And as I said, if you have a truly unique take, you can copyright your logline.

    Chura--LOVED that line in The Social Network. It said it all.

    Sue--We've probably been approached by some of the same people. LOL.

    Lester--I've heard that but couldn't find the source of the quote. Anybody know?

    Serendipity--The blog variation. Yes. I get it all the time. I suggest they start their own blog. Quiets them down right away.

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  23. Great post Anne.
    My story is about "A stranger comes to town..."

    Satnam Kaur

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  24. "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." --Leo Tolstoy http://bit.ly/gTZyFH Ah, Tolstoy!

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  25. This used to be my biggest obstacle with starting to write- fear that it had already been written before- but once I realized this simple realization I was able to let it go and finally find my voice. Its like the Lauryn Hill song where she says "everything you did has already been done" amen to that!

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  26. Satnam--Oh, no. You stole my plot!

    Lester--Thanks a bunch for looking up the quote. OK, Tolstoy had already shrunk it to 2 before all those other guys.

    Aisha--Thanks for that Lauryn Hill quote. It's perfect.

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  27. When I've worked with several writers in groups I've suggested a simple idea and asked each of them to write a paragraph using that idea. By the time they each read a sample aloud they begin to understand that each one is an individual approach and there is no danger of duplication.

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  28. My ideas are not very unique, I'll admit. Usually they sound pretty dull (to me, anyway). The themes, the ideas, the story itself, has probably been done five billion times. Cinders isn't unique. I've found 5 or so books on Amazon recently about a continuation of fairy tales. Here I thought the idea was unique for quite awhile. I was wrong. What IS unique is HOW I tell the story. Nobody can tell it like I do with my unique spin. That's the exciting part for any writer. LOVE this post, Anne!

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  29. Emjoyed this, Anne. I'm actually working on a somewhat related post right now--not about the worry of people stealing plots, but about the worry that the plots I've been working with aren't good enough, too mediocre, etc. Sigh. I'm having a blue writing day.

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  30. Betty--Great exercise! That's a perfect illustration of my point.

    Michelle--I actually thought about you--and your unique take on the timeless Cinderella story--when I was writing this piece. I didn't know there were others who had written novels continuing fairy tales, but it makes sense. Stephen Sondheim did it with "Into the Woods." Spinning a novel off a familiar story is a great way to start with the audience right there with you. It's like bringing them news about an old friend.

    Nina--Sorry about the blue day. I was in the pits myself on Sunday. Writing is such a roller-coaster. My worry is that my stuff is just too weird to ever sell. I'll have to check out your post.

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  31. Critique Groups are a weird thing. I had a friend who I was trading stories with and a few weeks in, we found each other picking elements from each other's stories. In the beginning we were accusing each other, but then we realized it was a pattern, from week to week.

    We just stopped sharing out W.I.Ps. It didn't help anyway as a first draft wasn't even done.

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  32. Ben--Have you two thought of collaborating? Sounds as if you inspire each other.

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  33. Great post, Anne. I am often bugged by family friends to write their stories. "I have this great idea, why don't you write a book on it," is one of my uncle's favourite conversation starter. "I am sure you will have no trouble getting it published," is his second line. Its like they think I am deprived of ideas and I need their help.

    I have a writing friend who constantly urges me not to share or tell anyone about any of my stories. Her arguement is they will copy the idea. What she forgets is as writers we have too many ideas and too little time to write them down.

    I am tempted to send her this post. :)

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  34. Actually, I've always been afraid that I wouldn't "original" enough...that I would be the one stealing / piggy-backing off of someone else's ideas.

    But I've come to realize the truth, like you said: it's not about having a "brand-new" story; it's about telling the old story in a brand-new way. :)

    I actually wrote about that for my very first post on my blog, come to think of it. Thanks for your additional (way better) thoughts, Anne!

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  35. When I stated sending my novel out for beta-readers, I think my husband was more concerned about someone stealing my idea than I was. I always just assumed that the individuals I handpicked to read for me had plenty of ideas of their own, that they didn't need mine!

    I did recently have someone I know tell me that she had an idea for a children's story to write for her granddaughter, and she needed someone to illustrate it. I asked if she had written up a rough draft yet? No, she needed some help with that too! Apparently she hoped I would do the entire project, lol! But that's something altogether different from what you're talking about, isn't it?

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  36. Lots of fantastic information. It's the best course to just get over the worries of thinking one has a golden egg of an idea.

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  37. Great post. I don't really worry about plot purloining. I'm more concerned with my overuse of adverbs.

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  38. Rachna--It sounds as if you've got cluelessness coming at you from all sides--but the comments are coming from the same false premise: they don't understand it's about the writing, not the idea. Be my guest and send them the post.

    Veronika--Old ideas are fine. After all, pretty much all historical romances use the plot of either Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre.

    jb--Sounds like your friend was one of the classics, with a twist: I have this idea, you write it AND illustrate it, but it will be my book, right?

    SF--Getting over that misconception should be a requirement for "becoming a writer 101"

    Leslie--I agree wholeheartely and enthusiastically. An amazingly large number of writers get bogged down by an overwhelmingly over-the-top use of adverbs.

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  39. I like that Tolstoy quote! This one is also a new favorite of mine:

    Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. ~ C.S. Lewis

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  40. Selling an idea on e-bay for $10MM? That's a new one. Wonder if he got any takers?? Hope not.

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  41. I loved your comment "we're afraid we'll die before we get to write them all" (paraphrase). Also, read your previous post, too, curious what a book coder is. I'll have to look that up... I agreed with all your reasons. I have a friend contemplating self-pubbing and I need to screw up the courage to tell her, I don't think you are ready yet!

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  42. Elisabeth--That C.S. Lewis quote is awesome. Trying too hard always backfires, doesn't it?

    Liz--From what I could see, he didn't. But the entry is still up there on ebay, so he apparently he hasn't felt embarrassed yet.

    Margo--"Book coding" is what they call it when they translate your .doc from Word into Kindlese, iPadspeak or Nooktalk, or whatever. Each platform has slightly different needs, apparently. Amazon claims it's easy to upload your Word doc to the Kindle online form, and I know many writers who have done it successfully on their own. But you need some knowledge of HTML and basic coding. ("Easy" being a relative term.) For the non-computer savvy, it can be a disaster. Hence the rise of book coders. The coder who has the blessings of epub guru J. A. Konrath is Rob Siders at www.52novels.com. I know two authors who've used him and say he's the best.

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  43. I remember when I first started putting pen to paper, I came up with an idea for a children's picture book. Not a month later a very famous writer came out with my book! It was encouraging at least to realize I was coming up with the same ideas as the big guys.

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  44. For Kindle (the biggest market), I highly recommend 'Format Your eBook for Kindle in One Hour - A Step-by-Step Guide' http://amzn.to/f6EsY1

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  45. I've read that the only truly original stories are memoirs. Every person's life is different!

    As for stealing someone's idea: people can do this with screenplays, so that's why you have to be careful and not tell anyone until the screenplay's written and then you register it. Otherwise, "good writers borrow, great writers steal" is I think attributed to T.S. Eliot, and seems to be true. But as Michelle Davidson Argyle said, it's how YOU write the fairy tale story. BTW, I have her book Cinders and the writing is stunning; incredibly poetic. I love it!
    Ann Carbine Best’s Long Journey Home

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  46. Anne...there is a award for you on my blog.

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  47. M--That kind of positive thinking is the most important talent you need to make it as a writer.

    Lester--Thanks for the tip. Some people aren't skilled in tech stuff (especially those of us who weren't born into the electronic era) but if you are, this sounds like a find.

    Ann--You're right that a very original "high concept" screenplay logline probably needs to be registered.

    Rachna--Thanks a bunch!

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