Friday, February 27, 2009

Are Your Ideas Safe?

My question to you is regarding the safety of a nonfiction book proposal. I have heard of situations when a proposal is turned down because the platform is not as strong as one would like (perhaps no previous publication or degrees, but written by a writer with valid experience and a website with 50,000 hits/year) and then the publisher approaches an in-house writer or subject matter expert to write a book based on the idea because of its marketing potential.

There’s no doubt that since the beginning of publishing time authors have been fearful of publishers stealing their ideas, and certainly last year’s lawsuit between authors Jessica Seinfeld and Missy Chase Lapine only perpetuated this fear. But the question is, do publishers really do this?

And since I’ve always been as honest with you as possible I’m going to tell you that no, publishers do not steal ideas . . . sort of. Okay, before you freak out, let me explain.

I haven’t been following the case of Lapine v. Seinfeld lately, but my understanding is that Lapine is accusing Harper of basically taking the book proposal she submitted to them and turning it over to Seinfeld, whom they thought would be a better author. I just don’t buy that. Never once, in all my years of publishing, have I ever seen or heard of an editor stealing a proposal and passing it to another author to rip off. Does that mean it’s never happened? While certainly I can’t say it’s never happened in the history of publishing, frankly it doesn’t make sense. Lapine didn’t have outstanding credentials, but she did have credentials (although not a huge platform) and Seinfeld had no credentials at all, she’s just married to one of the most famous comedians of our time. If Harper was going to steal a book to pass to Seinfeld, why would they chose that one? It’s just ludicrous.

Most important, though, and outside of that particular case, if a book has that much merit, the idea is that brilliant, and the proposal is that well done, a publisher is going to try to make it work with that author. It’s in their best interest to do so. By the time they steal the idea, find an author to write it and publish it, someone else will have already snapped up the book and published it themselves. At this point Crook Publisher is already late to the dance, so to speak, and probably with an inferior project. If the publisher feels the author needs better or stronger credentials or a better platform, they certainly can suggest ways to make that happen. They could bring in a foreword writer with the credentials or even ask the original writer if she might be willing to work with someone with a platform or credentials. They can also help the author create a platform by setting up speaking events, and of course interviews with magazines, etc. The truth is that if the publisher likes the book that much they are going to offer to buy it. If the book is truly that great, the idea is that brilliant, and the execution is that perfect, and you have your platform, it’s not in the author, but in the book.

Now, is it possible that Seinfeld came to Harper with a cookbook idea and Harper didn’t see that as a possibility, but the editor instead suggested she write a book on sneaking vegetables into her child’s food? Absolutely. Is it possible the editor liked the idea Lapine submitted, but for whatever reason didn’t offer on the proposal and, remembering Lapine’s book suggested it to Seinfeld? Absolutely. Is that a punishable offense? Not at all. ***Please note that I have no information on how the book idea came about and personally I don't think the editor tried to rip of Lapine and give the story to Seinfeld. I'm just using this as a hypothesis and no one should think this is fact.*** Ideas are not copyrightable and publishers, like authors, have every right to develop their ideas in whatever way works for them. I know, I know that sounds horrible. But hold up a minute. How else do you explain the number of military fiction thrillers a la Tom Clancy? At one point in time there were none. Until Tom Clancy, this style of book didn’t sell. Or how do you explain the vast number of baby name books on the market? At one point there were no baby name books. Then someone wrote one, someone published it, it was successful and everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. The truth is that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and imitation happens in everything, it happens in publishing, it happens in TV, movies, art (look at the Impressionists), and it happens in business. Does that make it right? Yes and no.

We would certainly have a very limited number of books on the market if we couldn’t steal a little bit of idea here and a little bit there. Wouldn’t you be disappointed to learn that you no longer had a choice when looking for French cookbooks because Julia Child already had that idea and therefore Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris would be a rip-off and can’t be done? Or legal thrillers were assigned to John Grisham only and no one else could write that idea?

It takes a whole heck of a lot more than an idea to make a book and certainly more than just an idea to make a book successful. Fiction or nonfiction, the execution of the idea is far more important than the idea itself, and I’m reminded of that every single day when I’m reading through submissions. Daily, I receive nonfiction proposals for books with brilliant ideas and daily I reject them. Never have I rejected a fabulously executed project simply because of platform. In fact, this month I plan to go out with a new nonfiction submission where I have concerns about the author’s platform, but think the idea has such merit and is so well executed that I’m willing to take the chance. I also know that not just anyone can write this book. These authors have done their research and written a great proposal. They’ve executed something that not just anyone can do.

I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot of flack for this post and I’ve spent a lot more time than normal writing it in the hope that I explained myself properly. I don’t condone plagiarism in any way and I don’t condone thievery of proposals, outlines, or fully executed book plans. However, an idea is a very abstract thing and can be interpreted in many different ways, and it’s that interpretation that makes it unique. So don’t worry about the theft of an idea and don’t worry about the theft of your proposal. Instead concentrate on making your interpretation, your execution, uniquely you, and then there’s no way anyone can steal it (without plagiarizing, that is).

Jessica

41 comments:

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight...one cannot plagiarize an idea but they can plagiarize the wording used to execute the idea. A fine and scary line!

DebraLSchubert said...

I'm a fiction writer, so I'm not directly effected by this. However, I have been warned by folks not to include even a paragraph of what I've written (in a novel) on my blog for fear someone might "steal" it. Although anything's possible, this has always seemed like too much paranoia about nothing. No one could write my book but me, and - correct me if I'm misunderstanding - but I think this is the main point you're trying to get across.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree, though I don't have a LEGAL leg to stand on.
Yes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Yes, a lot of military fiction came out after Tom Clancy's books. BUT Tom Clancy was PUBLISHED. In this case, an idea that a woman proposed AND WAS REJECTED FOR was taken from her and published by someone else. She was left with nothing.
At least when Nora Roberts was ripped off, she was still making bank on the books copied.
How about this? If I have a critique partner who has a busy, busy life and doesn't write as fast as I do, but she has an AWESOME idea, is it right for me to "lift it" and publish it?
Again, you're right. Ideas cannot be copyrighted, but there is a moral issue here. I'm not talking about weird coincidences, (Like when a query showed up on your query contest that could have been applied to a book I'd written and submitted). I'm talking about knowingly or unknowingly using the ideas of another person to make money, or further ones career.
Believe me. I've heard the arguments about how there's only six themes and it's how you write an idea blah blah blah. The truth is that, as a writer, I want to publish my own ideas, not someone else's.
Again, no legal leg to stand on, but sometimes I wonder if plagiarism develops from this exact grey area thinking.
If I "copy" and idea? It's totally by accident. I don't read a story and think "I'll write one like this".
In this specific case? I have to side on the unpublished author left to shift for herself. I think the law, however, will disappoint her.

Kimber An said...

I don't know about all that stuff, but if you get a proposel for a cookbook for good food kids love which is also CHEAP and EASY and FAST for the parents to make - Jump on it!

josephrobertlewis said...

Flack! Flack! Afflack? Ben?

I'm in fiction, so as long as I don't give my manuscripts to unscrupulous strangers in dark alleys offering me fistfuls of bright colorful candy, I'm not concerned about "idea" theft.

Parker Haynes said...

Jessica,

Yes, you'll probably get some flak over this post, but I think you did a fine job of explaining yourself. Your logic is sound and your years of experience in the field reinforce that. Thanks.

As to plagiarism, where so we draw the line? As writers, we all read the words others have written and from them draw, consciously or subconsciously, ideas. It's not that we're out shopping for (or intending to shoplift) these ideas, but that they become a part of the reservoir we drink from. It may be as simple as a particular combination of words that sticks in our mind and then finds its way into our own writing. I think of such a combination that I read recently in a friend's work. He spoke of an "uncertain horizon." Has those words appeared together before? Probably. Will I use them? Probably, but it may be an uncertain sky or uncertain terrain.

I think we all do this to some extent. What we write is a combination of drawing from our imagination and from our accumulation of the countless bits and pieces of this wonderful thing we call life.

Jess said...

Why would you get flack for this? You're spot on. It's ALWAYS the execution that matters. Everyone knows ideas are "a dime a dozen". It's the writer's angle, experience, and ability that makes it publishable, not the great premise. Your examples of John Grisham and Julia Child are perfect. Nobody can write my books for me, even if we have the same basic idea.

Re: Jennifer McKenzie. "I want to publish my own ideas not someone else's." Then stop writing. There's no such thing. And I think there's a distinction between knowingly and unknowingly writing the same idea. You hear all the time two writers who don't know each other writing essentially the same idea without knowing it (and winding up with vastly different books to boot) - but if you took your friend's idea, there WOULD be an ethical problem there, if you were stealing specific details. If she wants to write a book about dragon shapeshifters, and you hadn't thought of that and it really hooked you, write your own version of dragon shapeshifters. The better one will sell, or maybe both will because what resonates with you might not resonate with me. Legally and ethically there isn't a problem here. It would be ludicrous if the only person who could write dragon shapeshifters were the first person who thought of them (and how do you determine THAT? )- suppose that person can't write well? We've lost all books on dragon shapeshifters because we've ceded the right to write them, and for what? You'd have to stop reading altogether not to be influenced and shaped by others' ideas.

(If she has a really intricate mythology for her shapeshifters and you want to use that? Well then there's a problem. The idea "get kids to eat healthier by sneaking nutritious foods into otherwise 'junk' food?" Not original.)

Also, plagiarism is the lifting of actual TEXT. This isn't a gray area way of thinking; it's well-defined and appropriately so. If somebody says something, and somebody else can say it better, it's not plagiarism. I like the way Parker puts it.

Jess said...

Also, about plagiarism - for every writer who has the same idea, there will be a different product based on it. How can one person own that idea, when the results won't be the same? You can't penalize the other people with the idea when there's nothing to support they would be COPYING, actually copying, the original. That's why it's the execution that's important. (if this is any clearer)

selestial-owg said...

There are people who will give you flack about the post. Fortunately, there are others who understand what you are saying. An author I have had the pleasure of talking to personally a few times has said that she could give the basic sketch of any of her books to a dozen writers and every one of them would end up with a different novel in the end.

My writing group has discussed this as well. There are blurry lines there. For an example we'll use "The Wizard of Oz". One can be inspired by that book (or movie) and write a novel about a young girl who travels to another world, goes on a quest, meets up with magical creatures, and has to destroy the bad guy in order to go home. That isn't plagiarism (and I'm pretty sure we've all seen versions of it at some time). Now, if they were to write a novel about "Dot" whose house gets caught up in a storm and transported to the magical land of Zo where she has to follow the golden brick road while wearing the diamond slippers to reach the sapphire city and talk to the sorcerer of Zo to get back home... In that case you MIGHT have satire, or you have a lazy, plagiarizing author. Of course, the thing is no publisher in their right mind would touch that book if it wasn't satire (and I don't know how many would touch it if it was).

As for posting online (in blogs or elsewhere), it is a personal choice. There is always the risk of someone snatching up the snippet you wrote and using it. However, in a blog, you have evidence of when you posted it. If they use your words, you probably have the upper hand with the law.

Jessica is right though, fiction or non-fiction, ideas don't have copyrights. And how can you prove that two people didn't come up with the same (or remarkably similar) idea anyway?

It might not be a fun prospect, but it's the way it is.

Suzan Harden said...

Anon 8:17 -

Legally, the line is freakin' huge. The Dan Brown/Da Vinci case is a perfect example of where an idea can't be copyrighted.
Art Buchwald v. Paramount is the perfect example where the company "stole" Mr. Buchwald's executed screenplay.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with Jennifer McKenzie --

Her quote: "... Yes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Yes, a lot of military fiction came out after Tom Clancy's books. BUT Tom Clancy was PUBLISHED. In this case, an idea that a woman proposed AND WAS REJECTED FOR was taken from her and published by someone else. She was left with nothing..."


This cookbook thing troubled me when it first came out and it still does. The woman with the original idea was a nutritionist, was she not? Not, you know, the socialite wife of a famous comedian. Yeah, you gonna tell me Jerrry Seinfeld's wife slaves over a hot stove every night COOKING? Please. I lost respect for Jerry Seinfeld himself later on when he went on Letterman (I think, maybe Leno) and complained about the "crazy" woman who claimed his wife stole the idea. Crazy! Crazy is being a national celebrity and demeaning a woman who has no recourse against your defamation.

While ideas cannot be copywrited, the fact that Harper (after dismissing the woman's book proposal) THEN has an exact book coming out with a celebrity author seems morally wrong. No the IDEA of getting your kids to eat healthy is not new. But SNEAKING nutrition into kids' food IS. The SNEAKING was the hook that made the book sell. The hook Lupine proposed.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

Then stop writing. There's no such thing.
Oh, I can respectfully disagree. I think there are new ideas that come out all the time. Like colors, it's not the "primaries" that make it different but the combination.
And I think there's a distinction between knowingly and unknowingly writing the same idea
I agree with you on this.
Would you really read your critique partner's dragon shapeshifters and decide to write one? Interesting. And I'm afraid I don't agree the "best one" gets published. Often the FIRST one gets published.
Personally, I don't think another person can take my ideas, but I'm not going to read for others and then write a book with the same things.
Where is the line?
I stand by my statement. I want to write my own ideas. BAsed on my own life experience, not based on what I read in someone else's work.
That's the point I'm making. We accept something like a publisher passing on an idea THAT NEVER OCCURRED to another author that was not "theirs". It came from someone they rejected.
I still don't think it's right, but I know I'm in the minority here.

AC said...

Jessica--
I think you are spot on and agree with everything you said. It toally sucks for Missy Chase Lapine, but the world isn't always fair (and I'm with commenter Jess--it's not like Lapine is the first person ever to think of sneaking veggies into kids' food).

And, to be honest, if you're writing something that in some form has been done before (and this would include ALL of us) you need to take your own spin on it. If that spin is truly good enough--and with a little bit of luck--you'll get it published.

We as writers ought to keep in mind that just because we think something we wrote is awesome and new doesn't make it so. Agents and editors know their stuff and they know what sells. If we concentrate on writing well, we don't have to worry about anyone "copying" us because our work will be better than anything else like it.

Martin Willoughby said...

Being in the UK I haven't heard of this spat, but I would be extremely surprised if more than a handful publishers or agents would 'steal' an idea to give to someone else.

Why create work for yourself?

Broadly I agree with Jessica and I suspect that there is much more to the case of Lapine and Seinfeld that will ever come out in public.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

I've seen in the world of publishing and film, stealing and its' cousin, "borrowing without return!"

Haste yee back ;-)

Kim Lionetti said...

"No the IDEA of getting your kids to eat healthy is not new. But SNEAKING nutrition into kids' food IS. "

Do you really think so? Because as a publishing professional AND a mother, I think that idea may be as old as time itself.

Personally, I feel that if the idea was taken from Lupine and given to Seinfeld, that is ethically wrong. But the concept is not the most original idea ever. Come on. That said, both Lupine and Seinfeld did an incredible job of packaging a not-so-revolutionary idea.

Anonymous said...

Unknowingly copying an idea is not a problem. Copying someone in your writing group IMO it is unethical and lacking morals. I'm on the fence about the publisher requesting someone else to write a book; to me it depends on the quality of the original, and maybe the solution would have been better to have a co-writer. IDK enough of the details on the cookbook deal.

Fawn Neun said...

I've seen articles on how to sneak vegetables into your kids food for over 20 years - in fact my mother did the same thing 40 years ago. The fact that the celebrity wife sold the idea of a book and the unknown didn't speaks more to my sense of cynicism than my sense of injustice. No - they probably didn't find another author for the book. It's not that new of an idea, and Seinfeld just had name power. Unfair, but probably not illegal.

Anonymous said...

Oh and I do have to say if the publisher truly passed the idea on purposely I do lose respect for them. A little guy being ripped off by a big company is rotten and they deserve to be sued if that is the case, which is like smacking a horse on the butt compared to smacking a fly.

Sooki Scott said...

Why take the risk and knowingly steal the idea when Harper could have easily suggested a partnership between Mrs. Seinfeld and Ms. Lapine, which would have been a win/win situation for all parties------Harper publishes a book by a famous name and a recognized professional. Ms. Seinfeld receives fame not hitched to her famous hubby's coattails. Ms. Lapine strengthens her professional credentials and earns money. What more could they want?

Of course, one Harper employee talking shop-talk with another employee could have easily passed on the idea without knowing the idea's genesis.

Confucius say; man who cuts self while shaving, lose face

Rick said...

Eh. This may have been an issue before, but now? There's a technology trail for the modern writer that wasn't there 20 years ago. Your word processor date and time-stamps the creation of your file. Your email date and time-stamps the query to the agency. There's really not a point in the chain where the author can't prove exactly what information has gone where.

I have to agree that the work is in the doing, not in the idea. Just like patents and copyrights, you can't do either for the idea of the thing, you have to have an actual physical proof. (Which is why software patents are such a hot-button topic, as there's no physicality ... or is there?)

And the "moral" issue? Again: eh. If a company "lifts" an idea to give to another writer ... maybe the source author needs to own up to the fact that their work just wasn't very well done. I mean, how many times have you thought to yourself "man, that was a great idea but a really horrible follow-through"? (*cough*Benjamin Button*cough*)

Writers know how much work goes into writing, so I find it hard to believe that any could worry that another company would want to start that process from scratch. For a company to make that decision, there must have been a massive problem somewhere. Maybe it's with the writing, maybe the author's personality, whatever.

Speaking as a guy trying to sell a book right now, I'd be flattered if a company came along and stole my idea -- it's a really great idea. And, frankly, I'll have more ideas. I'd take that as a sign that my writing really needs work. I'd use the experience to get better. Whining about fairness just means that I can't handle the competition. That's free-market capitalism, baby.

atexasgirl said...

Most agents, editors, and publishers are reputable because they don't do things like steal intellectual property, but the leak can happen anywhere in a big operation. The person who opens the mail or the assistant who screens the queries could knowingly or unknowingly pass on the idea. He or she could say to a friend, "Can you believe agent X rejected a book about sneaking veggies into your kids food?" And then that friend talks about it to someone else, and so on until it hits the right ears.

Anonymous said...

How about a poll? How many of you unpublished writers are going to take a proposal to HarperCollins?

jimnduncan said...

My understanding is, things have to be pretty specifically copied in order to be plagarism. Ideas get plagarized so to speak all the time. If this cookbook author had actually submitted material which then got passed over to said celebrity who slapped their name on it, then I'd think it's plagarism. But really? It's more sound business practice for a publisher to take an idea, even a submitted one, to someone they think can turn it into a more sellable product. I haven't read about that case, so I don't know any specifics, and it might be kind of a slap in the face to the author for Harper to pass an idea along to another author because they have more name recognition, but it's certainly not illegal for them to do so.

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Sarah said...

My agent submitted my non-F book proposal to Chronicle in 2005. The feedback we got was "the market for this idea is not big enough." My book was published by Crown in 2007, and then Chronicle published the SAME idea (the title differed by one word) in 2008.

I guess they reconsidered.

It happens all the time. But of course I have no recourse, because the legal fees would drown the advance I earned. Luckily I got my book published, and it sold well, and was even reprinted.

There really is no new thing under the sun, and at least I had a year on the bookstore shelves by myself.

Anonymous said...

I was going to say something along the lines of what Kim said, but she said it better.

Anyway, I've been sneaking spinach and other healthy stuff into my kids' food for almost 18 years. And trust me, living below the poverty line for so long, it was cheap too. So the idea is nowhere new.

Someone should write a book on how to insure socks don't get eaten by the washing machine. Or on how to train teenage sons how to close the lid on the toilet. Or on how the Mystery Diagnosis television show has helped to change lives for the better. Or how to support a family of six on 25,000 a year. Or how to have a successful marriage with interfering in-laws in tow. Or, Dear God, Help! His mother is Catholic, I'm not.

I'm seriously not being sarcastic, those are books I'd probably buy. So if they are already out there, please say something.

Angela said...

Great answer as always. It was a tough question to answer, and I think we all appreciate the honesty.

K.S. Clay said...

I'm glad you posted this. I happen to agree with you. When I was younger I used to think ideas (especially mine) were so awesome that they just had to be protected. Now I realize that was a bunch of drivel. For instance: Bram Stoker wrote a vampire novel. Does that mean Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer shouldn't have been able to write theirs, even though all of these authors approached the idea in different ways? Oh, and as Shakespeare borrowed the majority of ideas for his work, does that mean his plays should be shunned, the world deprived of his beautiful words? It's not the idea. It's the execution. An idea by itself is no good. Every person I know has an idea for a book. Not every person I know could actually write a book, and especially a decent one.

Oh, and with the vegetables thing: I don't think sneaking vegetables into a child's food is any more original an idea than sneaking in medicine the child needs but won't take, something parents have been doing since the beginning of time.

Anonymous said...

I am a fiction writer, and I have been affected by this.

In 2006 my agent submitted a novel of mine to a large publisher in Australia.

The editor eventually turned it down, with a few suggestions as to how I could improve it. It was revised and sent back to them after the editor told my agent it had been 'haunting her'. We were excited, but still no sale.

In late 2007, a novel came out in Australia and subsequently in the US which had a dedication to this editor from the author.

It also had many of my concepts and ideas from my novel.

I will say that the writer took my ideas and she delivered them differently from how I had. There was no 'lifting of text', just key imagery and rather cool concepts. I can't really explain without naming the book, so I won't go there. But I write fantasy, so key concepts are a rather bigger and more obvious deal than in other genres.

Suffice to say, when I pointed all this out to my agent, he agreed that my concepts appeared to have been lifted by this editor during the period both novels were on her desk. He also said it wasn't the first time he'd seen this editor do such a thing.

We decided there was nothing we could do about it except leave her off our future submission list. (Which will make no difference to her... but satisfies me somewhat.)

Despite all the awards she has one in Australia for her editing (Possibly for her so-helpful ideas and suggestions...) I was devastated to learn that my original concepts weren't safe even at the highest level.

I have asked my agent to stop submitting and I'm working on a new work.

I think it is wonderful that you are drawing this issue to public attention.

However, it is a frustrating problem in circumstances like mine; I am powerless to effect change. Publishing is a small pool and to complain about one of the big sharks could forever damage my standing in the industry here.

Keep on keeping on...

Anonymous said...

ANON 5:07

Your story is horrifying. It makes me want to self-publish if nothing else for proof to the world it was my idea first and easily expose the snakes in the grass. I hope you have a happy ending and do indeed get published.

Angela said...

In the effort to support this post and not "burn bridges" I am disgusted to see "it's not an original idea so what's the big deal?" regarding the Seinfeld case. After the scandals with the Harvard student back in 2005, James Frey, the faux-gangstress and faux-Holocaust survivor memoirs, I have no compunction in believing that Harper indeed took Lapine's idea and gave it to Seinfeld because of Seinfeld's stronger "platform."

This is a business and is, despite the closer relationship authors have with the industry, as cutthroat as Hollywood. It's all about names and the bottom line, and in non-fiction, you've got to be half-way famous to get your book accepted.

The situation with Lapine is horrible, but even more horrible is how easily writers can convince themselves that it's no biggie, thereby giving credence to the power the Seinfelds have had in blackening Lapine's name and credibility, because they don't want to be seen as slagging off on the industry they want to belong to.

You can add me to the list of writers who will not submit to HarperCollins.

Anonymous said...

Luckily HarperCollins has shut down, but Harper's still exists.
Anon 5:07: I'd wonder why my agent submitted to this editor if s/he knew how unscrupulous that editor was? Why risk it?

Personally, I'd revamp your same ms. w/ even cooler concepts and find a new agent and publisher.
Change the title and rework the premise. After all, two can play that game--but do it ethically. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Of course we all know that stealing has been going on for years and years in the industry, and right in your face because they know they can get away with it. If a writer is lucky enough to get a deal it is because the publisher could not get a celebrity to do it better. The public needs to stop living the lie. They'll do it every time, if they think they can get away with it, the public be damned. Jessica is not being honest with her readers when she makes them think this type of thing is no big deal. It is a big deal. So stop lying to yourselves and letting yourselves be fooled all the time. If you are submitting work, you always run the risk of losing it. Who is to say if Jessica's agency has ever received a query from someone, thought it was a good idea, and passed it on to a client? They are not going to tell on themselves?

Kim Lionetti said...

I think in any career -- any aspect of your life, really -- you have to be able to give people the benefit of the doubt in order to function and succeed. Obviously, there are those rare occasions when someone is going to get screwed, but you can't live your life thinking you're next. Your writing career is going to be dead in the water if you spend all of your energy worrying that anybody you send your query to (really, you think we rip off queries now? come on) is going to steal your idea, or if you take HarperCollins (which IS still in business by the way -- they just discontinued their Collins imprint) off of your submission list because of something that MIGHT have happened.

In the end, you'll get screwed alright...you'll have screwed yourself.

Anonymous said...

My advice: Marry a lawyer. That way there won't be any legal fees.

Only problem is it's like marrying a plumber: the plumbing never gets fixed.

Just my goofy take on this subject.

Anonymous said...

I have to respectfully disagree.

I have no idea what's going on with the legal case with Harper and Seinfeld, in truth, this is the first I've heard of it. But editors definitely do this sort of "idea pass off", ESPECIALLY in the comic book industry.

Many years ago I had a comic book idea stolen, and given to staff writers. That book made it to print, and those writers are still on staff. It can and does happen more often than you think. And for most of us without the money to hire a lawyer to battle someone like this, the big names in the industry get away with it.

Notice the TV cartoon Stripperella isn't around anymore? It's a poor example, but it still falls into this category. Same thing with the Taco bell dog. Stolen ideas do happen.

While it's true you can't copyright an idea, or "theme" as some might want to call it, there is a point where taking from this wellspring crosses the line.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer McKenzie, maybe you can see now that you are not in the minority here. I agree with you and with many of the later anon posts.

The people who argue against the possibility of concept theft are those who have never had it happen to them.

Yes, some new writers tend to be overly afraid of theft. I was accused of this merely because I used a type of animal in a story once. This other person , dabbling in writing, had mentioned the same species in a conversation to me a few months prior. The same species. It wasn't even the same kind of animal. She wrote her complaint to me and I told her that was like saying I couldn't mention Toyotas in my writing because she'd mentioned that brand of car in some conversation.

So yes, some unpublished writers can be paranoid and irrational about theft. But -- that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

Sometimes it is blatant plagiarism (Buchwald vs. Paramount) complete with a clear paper trail. That was a rare case where the writer not only had the resources so he could stick with the legal fight, but also had his own platform. He won and we all learned about it.

But the vast majority of other ones, like some of the stories in the comments here, do not involve famous columnists with deep pockets. We never hear about what happened to these writers. So, many people continue to believe that this kind of theft never happens.

But it does. And when it happens, it is just a blip to the agent. But it is years out of a writers' life.

For those who use the old "it's not the idea, it's the execution" argument -- that does not excuse theft. If ideas don't mean anything, why do so many people from movie producers to toy companies to fashion designers allocate so much money to security? Spielberg puts an invisible code on treatments and scripts to them from being leaked. He knows that another director would make the same film differently. But he doesn't want to have to fight that film at the box office.

What can writers do, particularly new or about to be published writers? Be as cautious as you can. Of course sometimes you will have to trust others because of the benefit. Just be aware.

Anonymous said...

Kim says: "...But the concept is not the most original idea ever. Come on. That said, both Lupine and Seinfeld did an incredible job of packaging a not-so-revolutionary idea..."

Yes, but too bad only one of them was rewarded with a book deal and promotion. Also, too bad Ms. Lupine's book proposal was shot down by the publisher who then, after the fact, gave free range to Ms. Seinfeld.

Everyone can have such a carefree attitude when it isn't THEIR work. No, ideas aren't copywritable, but in this case the execution of how to get kids to eat healthy (by masquerading it into other foods) is a very specific type of execution for a cookbook.

I almost can't even believe that poeple are saying that this isn't a big deal.

In fiction yes, there are millions of vampire books or romance sagas and plot points may overlap, but a writer's execution of the idea is so different (the language they use, the characters they create) that no two books are alike. But this is non-fiction, the execution IS the HOOK!

A hook shot down for Ms. Lupine's book and yet, somehwo magically accepted for Ms. Seinfled, who had the celebrity to hawk it on Oprah and the like.

Kim Lionetti said...

Wow.

Okay, my point was not that it's no big deal to rip off a not-so-revolutionary idea. I believe you may have forgotten to read the part where I said "Personally, I feel that if the idea was taken from Lupine and given to Seinfeld, that is ethically wrong."

My point was that it's not inconceivable that more than one person had that same idea. While the scenario looks incriminating to HarperCollins, there's still a chance that they're NOT guilty of stealing the idea. If you were a publishing company that had the same idea cross your desk and one of the authors was a close personal friend of Oprah Winfrey, I think you'd probably take that road too. Is that unfair? Maybe. But this is a business.

P.S. -- Lupine DID get a book deal and THE SNEAKY CHEF was a New York Times bestseller.

Liz said...

So I'm just now learning about this lawsuit - shame on me, since it's my profession (IP law, but not litigation) - but I have a REALLY hard time swallowing (pun totally intended) the argument that the idea for a cookbook about sneaking vegetables to kids was new, fresh or unique. Take it from a mom with too many cookbooks and two young kids.

A similar theme came up in the recent litigation over Dead Rising (a video game about zombies in a mall). The owners of the rights to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead sued for infringement of ... what??? Somehow they found lawyers willing to put forth the argument that they owned all rights to all zombies-in-a-mall stories. The court said no.

Before I get slammed here, I'm an author, too. Trying to get representation and published (Jessica, my query will be arriving shortly). But there's a reason IP protection doesn't extend to ideas except in the case of inventions: it's too chilling to everyone else who wants to make a living creating works for the rest of us to enjoy. In writing and other media, the idea is just the beginning. The very, very beginning. It takes so much more. 98% of that being talent. Frankly, Seinfeld's book took a lot of heat and criticism for lots of valid reasons. There's still ample opportunity for someone to write a BETTER book about getting picky kids to eat their vegetables (one word: KETCHUP).

Susan Hare said...

There is one thing that Jessica forgot to mention--there are very few really original ideas. As for the Seinfeld example, hiding veggies in kids' food is not a new idea. I have a son in college and recall recipes in young mother magazines eighteen years ago that used the same technique. Years of being a reader and a writer have taught me that it's not the idea, but the execution that matters.