Are You Worried Your Ideas or Work Will Be Stolen?

I recently received the following question from working writer Shannon Traphagen:

I have been fervently working on my novel (I am 5 chapters into writing it) and feel I have a platform like no other. My protagonist and antagonist are strong, and I feel it’s a fictional story that’s never really been done before. I’m very excited about it. I recently read a column on blogging successfully where you made reference to Kristen Lamb and her articles on it. The advice is great, but my question is this:

Because my book isn’t finished and I’m a new writer, I’m worried that the ideas I write about in my blog pertaining to my book could be ripped off. How do I safely write about some of my interests from the book, based on the extensive research I do, without having someone catch on to what my book is about?

Only two people have actually seen my book to date (with great feedback) and I never talk about the content of it to anyone. I’m really protective about it. Because it’s not finished I’m not sure how to go about this. Can you offer any advice on this?

First, a disclaimer

I am not an attorney nor do I have any formal training in intellectual property law. But I have worked in publishing for 20+ years, and I’ve also worked with IP lawyers. I think we all know that asking a lawyer for advice on something can complicate a situation. I’ve heard lawyers speak at writing conferences on copyright, and everyone ends up paranoid and frightened in the space of an hour.

Meaning: Many warnings are unnecessary and counterproductive. My goal is to make things simple and give you information based on the actual likelihood something “bad” will happen to you.

The following advice is directed toward writers of prose and poetry. If you are a scriptwriter or playwright, look elsewhere for advice; it’s a different world for you.

I’ll break this down in 3 ways:

  1. Protecting your ideas
  2. Protecting your unpublished writing
  3. Protecting your published writing

1. Protecting your ideas

It is not possible under current U.S. law to copyright or protect an idea. (You also cannot copyright a title.) So, how much precaution should you take to keep your ideas secret?

Very little. I guarantee that others have similar ideas; you see it happen all the time in the business. Chalk it up to cultural zeitgeist. While I don’t advocate advertising your idea far and yon, or putting flashing lights around it on your blog, the chances that an agent, editor, critique partner, or stranger will:

(a) steal your idea

(b) execute your idea better than you

(c) AND be able to sell it

… are next to zero. It is not worth worrying about. Share your work with trusted advisers, send it to agents/editors for consideration, and talk about aspects of it on your blog. No problem. Unless you are known in the industry for coming up with million-dollar high concepts, it’s not likely you’ll experience idea theft.

And while, sure, someone can steal your idea, they can’t possibly execute it or interpret it in the same way you can. No one can be you. That is your best protection of all.

2. Protecting your unpublished writing

Your work doesn’t need to be formally published to be protected, and you do not have to display the copyright symbol on your manuscript to have it protected. (One of the reasons there is so much confusion surrounding this issue is that the law changed in the 1970s.)

Since your work is copyrighted from the moment you create it, the existence or validity of your copyright will not be affected if you don’t register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. In fact, you can register the work after you find infringement and still be afforded protection. (You will not be eligible for certain types of damages if you do wait to register. Learn more here.)

That said, let’s go down the series of events that must happen for a lawsuit against an infringer to make sense:

(a) Someone must steal your work.

(b) Someone must develop and package the work (or make it desirable for someone to pay for it).

(c) Readers have to find it and pay for it.

(d) Meanwhile the person who did the stealing needs to keep a low-enough profile that the infringement is not detected while still making enough money to make it worth his time.

Most people don’t view unpublished writings (or writers) as an untapped gold mine. It’s a lot of hard work to profit from a piece of writing (especially writing from an unknown, unproven writer)—isn’t it?

3. Protecting your published writing

This is where we enter into philosophical debate. Many believe that obscurity is a greater threat than piracy. I tend to agree. Piracy is more likely to hurt authors who are famous, rather than the unknown authors.

However, even bestselling authors have experimented with giving their work away for free—even enabling piracy!—and have claimed to profit even more due to the marketing and publicity effect. See Paulo Coelho as an example.

There is one area of theft and wrongdoing that is frustrating: People who create and sell ebooks on Amazon by duplicating or repurposing other people’s content, or using public domain work. We’re all depending, frankly, on Amazon to stop these bad actors. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

Other notes

  • Your work cannot accidentally fall into the public domain. Published work does not enter into public domain until 70 years after the author’s death, unless you’re offering it under another framework, e.g., Creative Commons.
  • Selling various rights to your work doesn’t affect your ownership of the copyright. Various rights are all part of your copyright, but selling them in no way diminishes your ownership of the actual work. The only way you can give up copyright entirely is if you sign a contract or agreement that stipulates it is a “work for hire,” or otherwise purposefully license your work under a different framework.
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