Did you hear the story of the newcomer to a writers’ group who refused to share his work in a meeting, in case someone ‘stole’ his ideas?
It’s only natural to be protective of our ideas – after all, they’re the lifeblood of writers – but was that an over-reaction or was he right to be worried? And if our ideas are used by someone else, is there anything we can do about it, or even learn from the experience?
Firstly, remember, there’s no copyright on ideas, so even if yours is ‘stolen’ and you may consider it a moral theft, there’s no legal redress. Copying an idea is not the same as plagiarism – which means to directly copy someone’s written work and pass it off as your own.
An idea, until it’s expressed in some tangible form, doesn’t actually exist. The only way to protect an idea is to produce something concrete. Every country has its own copyright laws but in the UK it’s generally accepted that any work is automatically copyrighted as soon as it leaves the writer’s mind (ie: ceases to be just an idea) and is placed on paper, computer, or other medium.
Of course, if you’re certain that someone has ‘stolen’ your idea, then you may not be able to do anything about it but you can at least make your feelings known (and hopefully shame them into never doing it again!)
However, although it’s happened to me – once – I’d say that consciously ‘stealing’ ideas from another writer is rare. Most writers have more than enough trouble keeping up with their own ideas.
In fact, ideas are rather like children. We all think our own are amazing – but actually, to other people – who are much more interested in their own – they’re usually not that fascinating.
And there may be another, perfectly innocent reason for your idea apparently being ‘copied’ by another writer. It could, for instance, simply be coincidence. Most of us are exposed to the same outside influences and the same potential sources of inspiration. It’s hardly surprising then, if similar upbringings and the same news, weather and TV channels, sometimes produce identical ideas. And even though two writers can easily have the same initial idea, the resulting pieces of work will almost certainly be very different.
This even happens to well-established authors. In 2004, fictionalised biographies of Henry James by the writers David Lodge and Colm Toibin were published within months of each other. Unbeknown to them, Lodge and Toibin had been simultaneously writing about the same subject: they’d had the same idea. I’m sure neither of them thought the other had ‘stolen’ anything and their books were, in any case, very different.
But if you’ve got a fantastic, original idea for a novel and you’re afraid that, by the time you finish the book, someone else may have got there first, then writer Sophie King advocates breaking the normal rules. She suggests you send your synopsis and the first three chapters of the novel out to agents before you’ve completed the book (but she adds that some agents and publishers may not like this and you need to be prepared to hastily finish the book if they want to see more!)
Another plausible reason for apparent ‘copying’ could be that someone has simply absorbed your idea unconsciously. Let’s face it, we can’t always pinpoint exactly where our ideas come from. It’s worth adding a line or two in your writer’s notebook about the source of any idea you have, so that when you come to use it, you’ll be confident that you haven’t unconsciously ‘copied’ it from another writer.
A friend of mine used a very specific incident in an (unpublished) short story which she read out at a writers’ critique session. That exact incident later turned up in the award-winning novel of one of the other writers who’d been present that day. Was that a deliberate ‘steal’ or did the novelist simply absorb that idea and regurgitate it some months later, while he was writing his book?
We’ll never know for sure but don’t be too quick to judge. If, for example, your friend takes a funny story you’ve told her and gets it published on the letters page of a magazine, she may have completely forgotten that you told her the story and thought it was ‘hers’ to use.
And on the subject of ‘ownership’, writer Lynne Hackles has a useful technique. If a writing friend tells her an anecdote that she thinks she can use in a story, she tells them they have six months to use it and if they don’t – she will! This is not only fair warning but a nice bit of friendly encouragement to ‘get writing!’
As far as pitching articles is concerned, if an article appears in a magazine a few months after you – unsuccessfully – pitched the same idea, don’t automatically assume your idea was ‘stolen’. The pitch may have been unsuccessful because the editor had already commissioned a similar piece which was still in the pipeline.
Don’t take the hump – and certainly don’t contact the magazine and complain. Instead, look at your idea again. Is there any way you could adapt the article for a different market? If your idea was good enough to be published in one magazine, there’s a good chance that another publication will want it – if you can give it a different slant.
Looking on the positive side, if ‘your’ idea does appeared in published form somewhere – either ‘stolen’ or not, it’s a good sign.
When I expressed my displeasure to the tutor who took my idea (developed during her workshop) and turning it into a published story, she said she thought I’d be ‘pleased’ that it had appeared in print.
In retrospect, I see what she meant: I’d had a good – publishable – idea. And if I could have one, I could have another. I can also see now that I could still take that story plan, tweak it slightly and try it on a different magazine.
Because, let’s face it, how many really original ideas are out there?
There are, famously, only supposed to be seven basic plots. And even the best-selling Harry Potter books are not entirely original. There have been books set in boarding schools for decades and writing about witches and wizards goes back to ‘Lord of The Rings’ and ‘Macbeth’. The success of J K Rowling’s books is down to characterisation, style and plot as much as her initial idea for a school boy wizard. There’s more to writing than just having an idea: it’s what you do with it.
We all know people who boast about how many ideas they get. But do they ever do anything with them? Getting the idea is only half the battle: structuring that idea into something entertaining, readable and publishable, is the really hard part.
As writers, we need to be adaptable and determined. If our proposed article turns up, written by someone else or if someone uses a story idea of ours, before we’ve had chance to write it ourselves, we need to be able to shrug it off, shout ‘Next!’ and move on.
That’s the lesson I learned when my short story idea was ‘appropriated’. It actually taught me a useful lesson: I realised that there’s more to being a writer than having just one good idea. Since then, I’m very pleased to say, I’ve had lots more.
How To Protect Your Ideas:
1. If you’re really worried about someone using your idea, keep stumm until you’ve turned it into a story, novel or article.
2. Be wary of posting work-in-progress on ‘open forum’ websites. You don’t know who’s involved with those and unscrupulous types could be looking for ideas to ‘borrow’. A closed-forum is much better – where you know who’s taking part and can have a code of practice.
3. Be clear at workshops – or when talking to writing friends – if any idea you’ve expressed is one that you’re planning to use in your writing. There’s still nothing you can do if they decide to ‘use’ your idea but at least they can’t claim ignorance and most people would recognise that to do so would be morally wrong.
4. Don’t just sit on it or talk about it! The longer you wait before turning your idea into something tangible, the higher the chance of someone else having the same thought – or of someone hearing your idea and using it themselves. If you’ve got a great idea, the best form of defence is to get writing!
First published in Writing magazine, January 2012 as ‘Stolen Intellectual Property’