Writers who are in the process of submitting their work to agents and editors tend to worry about idea theft.
How much worry is justified, how much is unjustified, and how much worry is just self-sabotage in the making?
And—most importantly—how can writers protect themselves from having their ideas stolen?
Writers can’t copyright mere ideas. You can copyright a written book (which the Copyright Office recognizes as a “tangible form of expression”), but not an idea.
So ideas alone aren’t protected. But…then again…
When author Lisa Skye recently saw that her ex-agent had published a cookbook that was allegedly based on an idea that Skye herself had come up with, she cried foul and got a lawyer.
We would have liked a clear verdict in her case. But instead there was a settlement (with the author getting a shiny new book deal for a title similar to the original). Read more here.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES THAT SOMEONE WILL STEAL YOUR BOOK IDEA?
We have to be honest. The Skye case is rather unusual—given the huge number of books that are contracted each year. If you’re an unpublished writer losing sleep because you’re worried that a reputable agent or editor will steal the idea for your book, you might be overdoing it.
The fact is, reputable agents and editors are inundated with queries, manuscripts, pitches, etc. Your one-in-a-million idea is just that: one in a million (which is to say, your pitch is just one of the millions out there). Unless your book idea (AND the writing of it) is strong enough to merit an offer of representation, agents will be more inclined to forget your idea than steal it.
Plus, consider this scenario. Even if someone were to like your general concept enough to riff on it, there’s no possible way that person could write your book. The perspective, style, and interest that you bring to your own writing are inimitable.
TAKE PRECAUTIONS: HOW WRITERS CAN PROTECT THEIR IDEAS
There’s no perfect guarantee that a writer can protect an idea. But there are reasonable steps a writer can take to be sure that he/she is limiting the possibility of a theft.
The most important thing is to submit your work only to REPUTABLE professionals. Big publishers and good literary agents want absolutely nothing to do with any hint of scandal. It’s awful press.
Some people state that a writer should put the copyright symbol on all work. The copyright symbol might possibly scare off people who aren’t familiar with copyright law. However, reputable agents and editors already know the law (that a work is copyrighted the moment it’s set down and that ideas are not protected).
Some writers still subscribe to the “mail your book to yourself” notion, even though that’s something of an urban legend. But—again—that won’t protect your idea.
THE DANGERS OF BEING PARANOID
Being overly afraid of theft could actually be more detrimental to you than taking the “risk” of responsibly sending your work into the world.
Most people—even other writers—have no interest in stealing your original idea because they have original ideas of their own. Being afraid to workshop a manuscript will likely hurt more than help your cause because you’ll miss the creative spark of collaboration and encouragement.
Worrying so much that you can’t submit your book to industry professionals might just be a self-defeating behavior (after all, countless people are submitting their work and doing just fine).
The trick is to see the bigger picture; then, proceed with awareness and a healthy amount of caution.