In what seems like 1,000 years ago I posted on r/writing, a somewhat harsh diatribe about how people need not concern themselves with their work getting stolen and especially did not need to protect their ‘ideas’. Some lauded the post while others became salty.
Reflecting, I’m still struck but how prolific the worry is, but also my tendency towards a mean reaction – I suspect this has a lot to do with the harsh truths of writing and publishing and my response is something akin to a parent wanting to tell their child that the Boogeyman doesn’t exist, but give them forceful warnings of real world dangers of bad debt, workplace bullying, global warming and politicians.
So I figured its time for a review and discussion about Idea Theft.
First of all what am I talking about?
Many writers feel some level of anxiety about Idea Theft, that someone somewhere upon hearing their ideas will in fact go on to write their own story based upon them, get published and essentially find fame and fortune before you.
This anxiety ranges from not wanting to discuss their story online, to refusing to share work for beta-reading or critiques to being highly suspicious even of professionals. And to be fair when I first began researching writing I thought that the job of Literary Agents was to prevent publishers from stealing your story. It just seemed like a plausible outcome.
Bear in mind that Idea Theft is different from plagiarism. Plagiarism is blatantly taking the words of another work and claiming them as your own. Plagiarism is most definitely wrong, but in fact does happen and seems to be more enabled in today’s online market than ever before.
So Idea Theft sits in a weird realm between irrational worry, and interrelated with originality anxiety (e.g. writers also worry that they will discover a work similar to theirs already published regardless of whether they nicked the idea). I want to make some points that hopefully for any reader relieves that worry – without being too harsh and perhaps guides towards what should be worried about!
By the way by ‘Ideas’ this usually means the premise, or brief synopsis of a book/story, but can really mean any aspect of a story that is floating around in a person’s brain-cage.
Over-estimating the value of ideas
Here’s the thing, we’re all walking around with amazing stories in our heads. Period. Sure what got us into writing was probably some level of arrogance that our ideas are darn good, the darkest, most exciting, never been done before ideas.
Ultimately however the value of your art is the thing that you eventually produce. The novel, comic, movie, video game, whatever.
Let me ask you this, have you ever seen or has their ever been a market for ideas? People collaborate all the time, but I guarantee you’ve never spent money on a the idea for a book because the idea was that good! No when you buy writing, its the actual book that got written that you purchase, sure you might have been sold on the premise, you might talk about the work as if its brilliance lay in the mere idea of it, however anyone who has seen a poorly produced or badly acted movie knows that the ‘idea’ means little when the piece is poorly executed.
An idea is only as valuable as the motivation and inspiration it gives you to write that actual book and pursue its success. Which still might give people a twisted worry that someone else might be motivated and inspired by it! So here are some hard truths.
Your Idea is already out there.
I say this is a hard truth, because it risks catapulting writers away from worrying about theft, to worrying about their originality (which you shouldn’t worry about either).
Right now, whether you’ve shared your idea or not, there are any number of aspiring writers in the world, its one of those statistics that we don’t actually have data for but I’m willing to bet that the number is in the millions. Alongside that there is also the myriad of books already published both recently and historically.
And sure I realize that your unicorn vampire crossover sounds pretty original, but the fact of the matter is that Rowling did not invent the idea of a magical school, Tolkien did not invent the idea of magic rings, and what is going to make your book a success isn’t how protective of the original idea you are.
I think this concept is hard to get one’s head around because people underestimate just what the publishing industry/self marketing field is like. There are probably six manuscripts with your idea sitting in a slush pile about to not be read as we speak. The issue is how committed you are to producing a polished, well crafted product from your idea.
Which brings us to the next point which has already been mentioned a couple of times:
This line is rolled out so often on this topic its almost cliche, but its super important to realize. When people worry about their ideas being ‘stolen’ and someone publishing a work before them they are essentially saying they are essentially worried that someone is going to take 1% of the creative effort from them, produce 99% effort and succeed but somehow it all comes back to the Idea being stolen (not those efforts).
It’s hard to come up with an analogy, perhaps because in other fields is more obvious the idea is lesser to the actual action. Its a bit like the difference between the concept of an exercise regime and the commitment to sticking to it. Not talking about your idea is the equivalent to not discussing your regime in case other people go away and get fit.
Anyway the point is as above, ideas can be inspiring but writing, especially novels, are about producing a very large amount of material that provides a well executed story that fits into the market and entertains as much as it provokes deep thought. There is a certain point where even if someone did thief your story idea one wonders if they managed to publish a novel from it they had the creative writing chops already in place anyway.
Which brings on another point:
Ideas do not get used up
I suffer from this illusion also. Alongside thoughts of theft, writers also worry that they will ruin their good idea if they try to write a novel and produce something average.
This simply isn’t the case.
Sure you might feel slightly worried about whatever is ‘hot’ right now. It’s worth considering what is already out there in terms of magical monster hunters, sparkly vampires, and fantasy intrigue to the nth degree but the reality is people crave good stories, and while publishers are often looking out for the next ‘thing’ they are equally looking to ride the wave of the current ‘thing’ and/or publish works of traditional stories that have been enjoyed throughout the ages.
As mentioned before novels are complex and filled with material, multiple ideas in fact. These are not one shot concepts they can never been used again, nor is it hacky to use them again in that piece. In many respects the brilliance of a novel is how those ideas are put together that intrigues (and will be unique).
So don’t get me wrong, its a hard pill to swallow, the thought that your idea might be already out there, or already a WIP in someone else’s laptop, but the reality is the issue is not that you need to get protective of your ideas, but that you need to get working hard on them to produce your story!
On the other hand
So while I’ve kind of hit people over the head with how they aren’t going to get their ideas stolen there are some flip-sides to the argument:
There are trolls out there. While it’s unlikely that someone is going to steal your idea and become the next block buster author, the internet is somewhat of a horrible place, and there are people who may threaten to take your work, or people who will attempt to spite you through their writing. It’s important to realize that while its a nasty feeling to think someone is doing that, and they may impact a local community (e.g. if they produce stories on the same website you prefer) but I guarantee they won’t hurt your chances of success except as long as you don’t succumb to angst.
Plagiarism. I mentioned this before, online now days the potential for literal theft of material is high. I’ve heard about savy crims taking older works that haven’t been e-published and releasing them in their names, fanfiction authors blatantly stealing and even successful authors lifting passages from other works.
Thing is there actually isn’t a tonne to be done about this stuff, its really up to the platforms that host writing to prevent his practice. On the other hand again its actually unlikely to directly hurt you, and in fact could create a scandal that puts your name out there if you catch someone at it!
The truth is I think that anxiety about Idea Theft is actually a manifestation of the overall anxiety we experience as writers. Honestly its a bit of a fearful hobby, we fear ridicule, not being noticed, being noticed by thieves, being unoriginal, writers block.
Ultimately I think the goal is to overcome our fears – not avoid them through being overprotective or defensive or not getting out there.
Anyway that’s my thoughts on Idea Theft – what are yours?