What If Someone Steals Your Ideas?

I’ve seen a fear that strikes into the heart of aspiring writers. It’s the fear of having your work stolen by other writers and even editors or publishers. This can stop writers from joining writing groups, trusting beta readers and even submitting their work to

She was going to be quick, if she was going to steal this unconscious writer's idea (img. 20th Century Fox - The Book Thief)

She was going to have to be quick, if she was going to steal this unconscious writer’s idea (img. 20th Century Fox – The Book Thief)

agents. Out of all the writer fears that afflict me on my worst days, theft is not one of them. If you really sit and think about it, the likelihood of someone stealing your work is pretty slim. Let me explain.

Let’s deal with the first possible thief; another writer. These scavengers of fiction lurk in writing groups and online writing communities, or so the legend goes. But is this a real threat? And how do you protect your ideas?

 First:

Maybe there are would be writers out to “steal” your ideas. Suppose there was someone once in a cafe in Edinburgh. They noticed a woman scribbling in a notebook and thought “Aha, an unsuspecting writer”. When the writer went to get her next cup of coffee, the thief swooped in and scanned the notebook. Boy wizard, boarding school, magic broomsticks. Got it! See where I’m going with this?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that alternate reality would have created Harry Potter by a different author, but you’d be wrong. Give two people the same idea and you’ll get two very different stories. Think about that writing prompt you got in a fiction workshop and how 15 people wrote completely disparate stories from the same starting point. Even if someone did steal your idea, they wouldn’t write your book. They are not you and that’s your ultimate protection, as a writer.

There are a lot of writers in the world and it’s more likely that two people had similar ideas, than someone stole yours

Second:

You can’t copyright an idea. That’s a fact. The best way to copyright your work is to write it down. Once it’s on paper or on your hard drive, it’s yours and copyright laws kick in to protect you. You could make sure to date your documents and notes, just in case. Some authors think getting an ISBN for their work is the best way to protect it, but ISBN has nothing to do with copyright. The ISBN is a unique number that identifies your book when it is published. A publisher will give your book an ISBN automatically, so it could be wasted money, unless you plan to self-publish. Just to recap – get that idea written.

Third:

So, someone’s stolen your idea. All they have to do now, is write the thing. And once they’ve done that, which could be after you’ve finished, they have to try and get an agent or an editor and get picked up by a publisher. As we all know, that’s easier said than done. But you’ve spotted a book that is similar to your story. Did they steal your idea from that time you posted an extract online? Probably not. There are a lot of writers in the world and it’s more likely that two people had similar ideas, than someone stole yours. How do you think trends happen? If you’ve tapped into the zeitgeist without realising, it could actually work in your favour, as publishers and agents often want new books that are a bit like the big new thing.

The best way to copyright your work is to write it down

Right, now we’ve dealt with threat number one, the unscrupulous wannabe writer, let’s get onto the big one – the dodgy publisher or editor.

The urban myth is that editors and publishers ‘steal’ ideas from unknown writers and then publish them under a fake author. The first thing you have to ask is, why would they do this? Maybe the idea is that it’s easier to use an established author’s name to sell a new story or something. I’m not going to spend much time trying to understand for the following reasons:

  1. Publishers invest in authors, not ideas. The hope is to find an author with a great first novel. But the real hope is that they will produce countless follow-up novels, each more brilliant than the others. So stealing a great idea and ignoring the author makes no sense to a publisher.
  2. The idea of publishers stealing ideas or manuscripts and feeding them to their existing authors is vaguely ludicrous. Why would they maintain authors who can’t write and need to steal? Just kick them to the curb and take the big new thing (that would be you).
  3. Publishing is (clue is in the name) a public endeavour. To make a book economically viable, it needs to be marketed heavily and promoted. If it’s a stolen manuscript dressed up by a dud writer, in some big, evil publisher’s stable of scribes, then surely they’re asking for trouble. The risk of the real author spotting their work and kicking up a public stink would be huge for an already risk adverse industry. Think about it. Really?

Then there are the authors who think that their idea is so tremendous that it’s like the ‘one ring’ and corrupts anyone who reads it, leading them to lose all moral fibre and gain an overwhelming need to steal it. Publishers, editors, agents and writers everywhere will succumb to this ‘big idea’ and fall over each other to have its for their own, precious. Um, reality check. You’d be bloody lucky. If your idea’s that good, publishers will enter a bidding war to have you on their portfolio, in the hope that you’re not a one hit wonder.

The moral of the story is; stop worrying and get writing.

Source: Thief image property of Square Enix

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7 thoughts on “What If Someone Steals Your Ideas?

  1. A very interesting an informative page. Unfortunately I have been on the receiving end of this. In 2007 I self published a book with Lulu. It was simply to give copies to my friends etc. So I was not surprised when no copies sold. That is until July of 2012 when a few were purchased in the US. Two months later a best seller appeared on the book shelves. My novel was about animals working together and attacking humans, it is called Zoo. Yes he even used the same title. My opinion of the honesty and integrity of the literary world has been seriously dented. It is just too much of a coincidence and taking in the time scale after the books were sod makes it more suspicious. But what can a unknown writer like myself do about it? exactly, nothing. I have published four books since then and just wonder if any of them will be someone else’ s best seller. Why do the big boys need to enrich their already bulging bank accounts at the expense of the rest of us? As you say there is no way to copyright an idea, or even a title, and yes, it is very possible that two people can come up with the same theme, but in my case I am convinced his co writer usurped my idea.
    In some book reviews it was suggested that the great man did not actually pen the book but merely put his name to it. many thanks for reading my rant as I feel so frustrated and disillusioned at it all.

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    • Hi Stuart – I’m sorry to hear your story. We can only hope that you’re the exception, rather than the rule, but that doesn’t make it easier. Glad you’re still writing.
      I can only imagine that being a writer who steals work from others must be a pretty crappy, hollow existence.

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      • Thank you Chella that is so kind of you. I have picked myself up from the injustice of it and even now am sixty thousand words into my fifth novel. I will not let them grind me down. Bless you, take care. regards Stuart

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Why Writers Make Really Bad Parents | Writers Anon - Taunton's Writing Group

  3. Wise words, Chella. As I’ve often said (sorry guys) we writers are egotistical beasts and think everything we write is the best thing ever. Why would we corrupt our awesome imaginations with other peoples’ ideas? It’s like choosing cheap, sparkling wine in preference to champagne. If we wouldn’t want to do it, why would another writer?

    The bigger problem, surely, is in convincing agents and publishers just how much they need our books? If someone’s too afraid to submit theirs because they’re paranoid about plagiarism, they’ll never be published.

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