Monday, August 24, 2009

Idea Theft

I suspect the topic of plagiarism or idea theft is common among authors, especially in this day of computers and scanners, but how common is it and how much should authors be concerned about it?

I have to admit, I think at times I’m a bit of a Pollyanna (although I prefer to call it optimism). I really like to think the best of people, especially those who call themselves professionals (you would think in this age of Bernie Madoff I would learn). More than that though, I suspect when it comes to agents and publishers, few have the time or the inclination to steal an idea if the project submitted is good enough on its own (and I’ve certainly blogged about this before). But what about authors? Can you trust your critique group or the contests you’re submitting to? I know there are horror stories out there, there are always horror stories, but how often does it really happen and how much do you have to worry about it?

The reason I’m writing about this today is because one of you wants to know specifically about contests: “Recently, I sent in the first chapter of my newest project, something out of my norm, and my crit partners were wild about it. When I told them I planned to enter it in a few contests, several of them were vehement that I not. When I asked why (our typical use for the contests is to get a read on what people think), they were concerned that the idea – the spin – was something new and different, and putting it out there for contests would leave it open to idea stealing.”

Here’s the catch: an idea is not copyrightable, so yes, someone could steal your idea, but what really matters in the end is the execution. If your idea is brilliant, but you aren’t able to execute it as brilliantly, it’s not brilliant. Does that give others permission to steal the idea? Certainly not, and I would never condone stealing someone’s idea. What I do want to do instead though is challenge you to actually define “idea” when it comes to your book. Is the idea simply that you are writing a fantasy featuring elves or is it the entire breakdown of the story? For example, I know for a fact that there are or have been three knitting mystery series published. Does the simple fact that they are knitting mysteries make that an idea that’s now stolen or is it how the knitting mystery plays out that’s really the idea? Does the idea also include the setting and the characters? The reason I ask these questions is because frequently I’ll hear authors complain that someone else has stolen their idea when the idea is really a simple one-sentence description, and I truly believe that the idea or success is what you do with that description, not the description itself. Let’s take Harry Potter, for example: the idea of Harry Potter (in my mind) is an orphan boy who learns he’s a wizard and is sent to wizard boarding school. It’s the execution of the idea that makes it Harry Potter and not just another paranormal YA.

Okay, I severely digressed and maybe oversimplified. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you need to worry about ideas being stolen. Instead I think you need to focus on making the execution of your idea more brilliant than anyone else could ever make their execution. And as for whether or not you need to worry about contests, I think that’s a personal decision. I’ve never heard of anyone stealing ideas from contests, but I don’t know that I necessarily would hear of that. Certainly the more people you show your work to the greater the likelihood that it could be stolen. Frankly though, I think it’s unlikely.



Angie Fox said...

I can only speak from my experience, but I was on the contest circuit for about a year before I sold and I never heard of any ideas being stolen. At the same time, I received a lot of great advice on my various works-in-progress.

I know some unpubbed writers do worry about idea stealing. Some of them won't even talk about what they're working on when they sit at the bar at a conference. (Which blows my mind because I've actually got into informal brainstorm sessions at conference and the results have ended up in my books).

It seems to me that most other writers are more in love with their own ideas, as opposed to stealing anyone else's. As you get farther down the pike, you worry more about structuring an idea, how to sell it to your editor, the details of the story. In the end, that's what will set your book apart.

Mira said...

Jessica, I definitely agree with you. I think ideas are very hard to steal; maybe the overall concept, but the actual execution - well, you said it really well.

That seems true in fiction. But I am wondering if it's different for my non-fiction ideas. I think the market may only sustain a certain number of books on a particular topic....

Also, the humor idea that I have. I could see someone else running with it, and bascially cornering the market.

Not that my ideas are so incredible, but stil...

Anyway, I wouldn't want all of that to stop me from sharing ideas and benefiting from the exchange of feedback. I just wonder if it's different with non-fiction, as opposed to fiction. But with fiction, I think you're right - don't worry about it.

Interesting topic, Jessica. Thanks.

Sabina E. said...

Screenwriters know that originality doesn't really exist.

There's a huge difference between plagiarism (outright stealing someone's story-- word for word, identical characters, etc) and then there's that having a similar story.

Nobody is original. Nothing is original. Everything is always taken from something else. For example, my lit fiction novel is sort of similar to CATCHER IN THE RYE-- a first narrative perspective of an angry brown girl. The only difference is, it's not set in NYC in the 50s with a white male narrator.

People need to stop worrying about their stories being stolen. Unless you're JK Rowling or Stephanie Meyers with a $1 million publishing contract.

Maggie Dana said...

There's an eye-opening thread about plagiarism on the How Publishing Really Works blog, here:

Anonymous said...

I worry more about inadvertently using something I've read or seen in my own work. I recently finished a manuscript, had a relative read it, and was told, Hey, that's a lot like such and such. It turned out I had watched an Agatha Christie Poirot DVD months before beginning the ms and had incorporated some of the elements of the plot. The story and characters were different, the solution also different, but I'm wondering now if I should just abandon it. (Actually, I have. I've started to work on another novel instead).

Becke Davis said...

I thought exactly the same thing, but apparently I'm in a minority. My story concept is a little off-the-wall and I was worried I'd taken it too far. I posted the opening scene on my MySpace blog to get some feedback. Almost instantly, I heard from friends who are published, best selling authors (you would know their names) who urged me to pull the scene. They said because the concept was original, I'd be risking someone stealing the idea if I left the scene up. I deleted the post, which was just as well since I've tweaked the scene since then anyway.

Even though my take is unusual, I know other authors have used elements of my idea in their stories, but each in a very different way. I'm not really worried about this, but it struck me odd that it was published authors who had the most concerns.

Angie, your voice is so strong that even if someone else wrote about demon slayers with talking dogs, they wouldn't be anything like your books.

And, far from hurting their sales by writing on the same topic, the authors of those knitting books have started a whole knit-lit craze. I don't even knit and I like those books, again because each of those authors writes in a strong, individual voice.

There are shelves of books copying Harry Potter, the DaVinci Code and Pride and Prejudice, but I doubt that any of those has hurt the sales of the original.

Regina Quentin said...

I guess "idea theft" is just one of those irrational fears that we can have when we are unfamiliar with an industry. I used to fear this too. Fear usually comes from the unknown.

I'm armed with a little more education and experience now so I'm only concerned with making my story as excellent as possible. That way (worst case scenario), if anybody did steal my "idea" then hopefully my execution of the story would stand out.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how broad the plagiarism definition is. What if you modeled the speech patterns (not the actual dialog) after a TV character in such a way that people might be able to say that it sounds like that character? Is that allowed? Is it frowned upon?

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that the definition of 'idea thief' is 'novelist.'

Harry Potter is the perfect example. Virtually every single element is completely derivative: it's how they're combined and re-imagined that makes the 'idea theft' appropriate.

Or how about: vampires. Stolen, stolen, and stolen again. It's only because it was stolen -so often- that it hardly looks like theft any longer.

ClothDragon said...

Star Wars/Harry Potter Synopsis. Everything can sound the same if you think about it right.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

This may sound a bit harsh, but I think it comes down to whether or not you're paranoid at heart. I'm with you, Jessica. I'm optimistic and I think people have good intentions. I never worry about someone stealing my ideas, after all, execution is everything. Even if someone stole an idea (not that ideas can be stolen, they exist in the communal ether), their book would be completely different from mine. We all need to relax and write. Worry is a complete waste of energy.;-)

Becke Davis said...

Taking this a step further, a question that has come up for me recently is where the line is drawn between taking a concept and running with it and plagiarism. I read about a Swedish author who wrote a European best seller the imagined J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield as elderly and dissolute (I haven't read the book, I'm trying to remember what the article said). Salinger took offense, cried plagiarism and apparently won a court case. As I understand it, the Swedish author's books have been pulled. I think the court case is being contested, but it made me wonder.

I had an idea for a book where one of the characters was the ghost of a fictional detective. It's not Sherlock Holmes, but I have read Laurie R. King's wonderful Mary Russell books, which imagine a life for Holmes beyond Conan Doyle's books. (In fact, King's books made me feel a fondness for Conan Doyle's character that I'd never previously felt.) Well, Conan Doyle is long dead and Holmes was fictional, so I assume he was fair game.

And certainly no one hesitates to base stories on Jane Austen's books or characters, or Shakespeare's plays. But what if the author has been dead less than 100 years? Less than fifty years? What rules apply?

I also wonder about the books that purport to continue a series, like Charles Osborne's "Agatha Christie" so-called "adaptations" -- Spider's Web, Black Coffee -- which are often (and mystifyingly to me) shelved under "Christie" rather than "Osborne."

Where are the lines drawn?

Dara said...

I used to be really paranoid about others stealing my ideas--but that was when I was still a newbie at the whole business aspect of publishing.

Not that I'm anywhere near experienced now...:P Anyway, I don't worry about idea theft. Sure, there may be some slight apprehension every once in awhile, but nothing's original. It's all about the exection, like you said.

Anonymous said...

Execution is the key for common ideas, but if you truly have a unique idea it would stink to have someone beat you to the punch or have your idea flood the industry before you can get it out there.

T. Frohock said...

A writing friend of mine and I have decided to take the same idea for a short story and write a short story based on that idea. I believe that we can take identical concepts, but her version will be completely different than mine.

Part of it will have to do with our respective world views and another part will be our divergent writing styles.

I agree that sometimes we can be too paranoid about people stealing our ideas.

Great topic, Jessica!

Justina! said...

I was never worried about someone stealing my ideas or story until it actually happened to me. I had joined an online crit group where we swapped chapters back and forth. naother girl was working on a book that was nowhere near mine, and after a couple of weeks she decided to scrap her original book idea and do something different. Imagine my surprise when I got something that was almost identical to my opening chapter.

I was a little mad, not because the events so closely mirrored my own, but because the main character was described almost as identically as mine (my MC had a distinctive characteristic that the other author also used.) There was even a conversation that echoed one in my first three pages. The thing that made me the angriest is she had stolen my writing and rewritten it poorly. It bothered me enough that I quit submitting to the group.

So yes, it does happen, but I think it's more at the crit group level than at the contest or publisher/agent level. I just don't think those folks have the time to try and steal.

Sheila Deeth said...

It seems like every good idea has more than one movie and more than one book coming out at once. (Don't they usually come in threes.) And then, if it's remotely related to tragedy, the Greeks probably invented it anyway.

The Rejection Queen said...

I was just thinking about this over the weekend when an agent requested my full manscript. I got this vile thought in my head that it could be possible for someone to steal the whole concept of my book! And if that happened....what in Sam hell would I do?? So maybe I don't want to send them the whole manuscript just to be safe. I let a friend read the first 30 pages of my book...should I be worried?? My Mom told me to stop letting her read my book..she could make into her own...Man I'm so paranoid now.

Heather Kelly said...

Isn't that how trends happen? Writers like the ideas that are already out there in existing books and write them in unique ways. I think that just mentioning ideas to writers make them think differently, and adds to the writing climate at the time. I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing.

But to outright steal someone's idea, or pages, that's not cool.

Kim said...

I recently completed my second (unpublished) novel, and when a friend asked me what it was about, I launched into a brief description. She looked at me, wide-eyed, and said, "I don't want to rain on your parade, but that sounds like XYZ book by VeryFamousAuthor."

Having not read XYZ book, I rushed to the library and checked it out immediately, all the while thinking, "What have I done?!" As it turns out, there are some VERY loose commmon threads (okay, VeryFamousAuthor's threads are a lot more polished than mine, but I digress) in both stories, but other than the very general parallels, that's really it.

Presentation is everything, and I think that the urging to make your work the best representation of your idea is key. A weak representation of a strong idea is still...weak.

Reminds me of a quote by Howard Aiken, who said, "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

Thanks for the knowledge, everyone :)

Ulysses said...

I was planning to write on this very topic... but it seems you've stolen my idea. 8)

Anonymous said...

Knit-lit--I love it. :) I hadn't heard of it before, but it helps my novel. I began my novel in 2007 and it had a knitting group in it that helped to solve the suspense in the story, way before I even heard of other knitting novels.

Does that kill my novel? No way! It just opens the door to more readers who have found that they love that kind of story.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

Think of it this way, the stealer is not stealing an IDEA, s/he is stealing the HOOK. Yes, it happened to me. (Where else, but Hollywood)!

Only a fool would steal word for word. That's obvious. But to cobb a HOOK and spin it in a completely different direction is perfectly acceptable, because... you cannot copyright an IDEA/HOOK. Synchronous development happens all the time. You'd be surprised how closed mouthed the H'wood professional writing community is. Hell, if they pitch to studio suits, (even if they were WGA Signatory) and are asked to leave behind a *beat sheet* or some kind of synopsis, (just a page or two as a reminder to the execs), you better believe, before they embarked on pitching they stopped by the WGA West and logged their leave-behind!
HOOKS, or IDEAS, are the coin of the realm in writing. Yes, sublime execution is a must, but once you have the central story gear, and an imagination coupled with writing skills, you're off to the races.
I was a member of an online community for 10 yrs. We'd talk once a week. One of the members was a N.Y. Times best seller and a produced screenwriter. Good Lord, girl, he wouldn't even tell ya what genre his next book was... or the working title! After 10 years, mind you.

Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

I don't really worry about idea theft, but I will say that there is no need to be overly loose with ideas and concepts in this business. I don't post story descriptions anywhere online for anything I haven't sold yet.

New writers always want feedback, of course, but to me, I think it's best to concentrate on the professional feedback--the agents, editors and publishers.

Anonymous said...

Agree with above who says it's the HOOK that gets stolen, not necessarily the story idea.

for example, what if it was 1989 and I had an idea for dinosaurs cloned back to life from mosquitos trapped in amber? Great hook, right? But it's entirely unlikely I or anyone else with the same hook would have written Jurrassic park as we know it.

Or, if in 2002 I had an idea for a secret sociaty guarding the true identity of Mary Magdelene for centuries, but one man follows a series of clues hidden in artwork to uncover the secret...

I doubt DB would have been pleased to see a book with that hook come out right before his, even though it wouldn't be The Da Vinci Code.

When you've got a fresh, high-concept hook, it's nice to think that you'll be the first to bring that out. And I think it's worth something in the marletplace to be first. I'm not talking about little *twists*, like "Well, mine's a paranormal vamp but the vamps are not immortal!" kind of thing, but truly innovative high concepts.

Masha said...

Salinger took offense, cried plagiarism and apparently won a court case.

Actually, Becke Davis, Salinger cried copyright infringement, which is not the same as plagiarism.

Anonymous said...

There was once a big argument among two people in one of my critique groups. One had described a color as the "pink of a blushing bride." And another later wrote something like, "the shirt was the red of an embarassed blush." The first accused the second of plagiarism, and when I jumped in and said it wasn't, that writer #2 could have even have used blushing-bride pink if she wanted to and it not be plagiarism, the woman freaked and said we were all stealing her work. Of course, it's not likely that no-one else has compared a color to flushed skin, but she seemed to think her play on words was completely original...

So, anyway, I'm inclined to think most plagiarism accusations are from egotistical writers who are out of touch with reality.

Anonymous said...

Haste Ye Back and anon 6:12are quite correct.

Anyone who doesn't believe plagiarism exists has not worked in Hollywood.

Just keep up with the news and you'll see that it does happen in publishing as well. And those are just the ones that came to light.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it happens a lot--I had a passage lifted out of a magazine essay I submitted and the editor edited into a different (published) article. When I mentioned it, she said it stuck in her head and she didn't mean to do it. While I believed her, I do think it may be unconscious much of the time.

Also had ideas stolen from crit groups. Hope agents are honest... As they say, imitation is flattery but not when it happens to you!

Becke Davis said...

Thanks for the correction, Anonymous. I was trying to remember the details of the article I'd read, and got it wrong.

Stephanie Damore said...

Wow, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that plagiarism occurs in publishing, but I am. Only because I know how much passion it takes to write a novel and how can you have passion for an idea that's not your own?

I agree with Jessica, that it all comes down to execution. Yes, as Haste yee back said, people do steal hooks, ideas, but where they take it from there could be far different from you.

Mostly, I'm not worried about plagiarism - I'm actually sending my MS out for a contest this week - but I am worried about someone "beating" me at the bookstore; i.e., publishing their similar themed mystery novel before mine.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm paranoid but I would also not want to share a unique high-concept idea in the early stages with a lot of stranges. Once the novel is actually written, it would be hard for someone to catch up with you right away so I'd feel more comfortable submitting to contests, etc. In fact, why submit chapters in the early stages anyway -- you're bound to change them.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Haste Yee back on this one.

I've had my hook stolen at editor level. Imagine my surprise when one of the key concepts from my fantasy novel turned up on a cover of one of the novels she had been editing?

Obviously my delivery wasn't up to scratch and she farmed the idea out to some unsuspecting author. Very unethical behaviour. I have asked my agent never to submit to that house again... at least until their senior editor gets moved on. And she will... these things eventually comes back to roost.

Fantasy is a hard field. Great hooks,images, ideas and concepts are worth protecting and must be protected. Sure, it is all in the delivery, but concept matters.

I can't speak for other genres, but in fantasy, yes, people, protect your work.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, as Haste yee back said, people do steal hooks, ideas, but where they take it from there could be far different from you."

Still, there's only room in the marketplace for so many of the same high concept ideas.

How many scripts of "a guy finds a tv remote and realizes he can use it to control event in his real life" can actually be produced? Um, I'd say one. Doesn't matter what kind of "twist" or spin you put on it, that kind of thing only needs to be made once.

The more high concept it is, the less you should blab about it until it's sold. Unfortunately, there ARE writers out there who are technically competent and able to write well if given that certain push into an idea...Let them come up with their own ideas.

Anonymous said...

It's true, high concept is where it's at, especially for those whose dreams fly with the eagles and whatnot...but you do have to be able to execute on that concept, high or not! A concept is just that, while a finished manuscript is a salable product.

But most of what's published isn't really high concept at all, it's just "a slight twist on the tried-and-true." SF & F, romace, mystery--they all use the same tropes, depending heavily on execution to wring a little extra mileage out of them.

So when a high concept does come along, sieze it, take care of it...and above all, EXECUTE on it before someone else does!

Minions, I have spoken.

Ieva Melgalve said...

Well, I have had my ideas "borrowed" (a friend and me talked about some cool detail and he incorporated it in a story years later).
The cool thing is that now the idea (more a gimmick really) has gained in my eyes. Eg if I wrote it now, I'd have the background of my friend's work and interpretation and would do something different, have another spin on it.

It's just like first vampire stories were just fairy-tales but as the culture built and built and built, every good vampire story became richer because this was a repeated idea. "The Collector" gained because it employed Shakespeare's idea of Prospero's island, and nobody's pouting because Shakespeare wrote the idea first.

So, basically, if somebody stole my idea, I'd say that the idea would just benefit from it, not lose.

Anonymous said...

I agree with leva that having other people write the same type of books you do can be a positive indication that people like what you're doing, or at least that you're writing a popular subject or style. But you don't want to find yourself chasing every latest fad. Ideally, yours comes out first, then the copycats follow and keep yours in the public eye that much longer.

PV Lundqvist said...

If someone takes my unpubbed idea and makes it into a bestseller, I will shake their hand.

Every book is built upon another's idea, as you say, it's execution that makes the difference.

Unknown said...

I think it might be easier for a plotter to steal and\ idea, although I don't think stealing is the right phrase. Eventually, great minds think alike, and story lines are bound to be duplicated. History DOES repeat itself. As a "pantser," my stories come from characters who pop into my head and tell me their story, dragging me along on a trip yet to be revealed. So if any theft has occurred, I'll point to my cast of characters to find the guilty party. :)

Unknown said...

I totally forgot the point I want to make abut plagiarism. Google it along with the name of our current VP and you'll be shocked to see how his speeches follow the direct path of some of his predecessors.

Kelly Bryson said...

I haven't worried about plagiarism of ideas since I realized how hard it is to turn ideas into readable stories. I just posted a blog about it, if anyone is interested in a little humor.

Laurie Wood said...

I have to agree that crit groups, or "writer friends", are the level where "idea theft" often occurs. I've had it happen to me, right down to the hero's name and physical description. Any forum where you have brainstorming going on is a grey area for idea grabbing. If these storylines and characters being "taken" from me by one particular crit member hadn't actually happened to me, then I'd say "oh yeah, everything comes out of the universes conciousness". Um, no. The great stuff comes out of those who are smart enough to keep it to themselves, or leave crit groups where you're obviously being taken advantage of! I've only had good results from contests (and finaled several times) but again, the professionals aren't the ones who're going to steal your "ideas" - it's the unprofessionals who're trying to get a leg up on you, who you have to watch out for - a hard lesson to learn.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm going to disagree with this one, big time. I find that as my career has progressed, I've only gotten more leery about sharing ideas before I've got a contract at hand. And I have half a dozen books on the shelves.

I can honestly say that at least one, if not several of my novels would never have been on the shelves if there had been another novel on the subject. I've got author friends whose books have really suffered from being out at the same time (utterly coincidentally) as another book with a similar, REALLY high concept, and I have seen several cases where books didn't get picked up because the concept was so similar to something already in place.

Please note: this goes for actually unique hooks, not the 7,583,204th vampire love story. In that case, it is about the execution. But unfortunately, most unpublished authors are pretty bad about knowing exactly what constitutes original. Agents and editors are awash with identical submissions from folks who think they are the only people to come up with story idea #206. In most cases, those authors don't realize that that particular story isn't published FOR A REASON (i.e. the hoary 'guy goes back in time to kill Hitler' plot) or that, contrary to their belief, there are actually several dozen books on the shelves with that plotline already.

What's interesting is that the first person who writes a vampire is innovative. The second is a ripoff artist. The 25th is following a trend, and the 100th is been-there-done-that.

The exception appears to be Twilight. You can't get enough Twilight ripoffs on the shelves these days. If I read another YA novel about a new girl in school who meets a gorgeous, inscrutable, obsessed paranormal creature in her science class-- and no one is calling these authors on it!!!!-- I might commit sparkly homicide.