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.