Sunday, July 6, 2014

Idea theft: how safe is your story?


“That’s MINE!”

You can hear the cry in probably every kindergarten in the world… and perhaps every gathering of writers, as well.

Oh, we don’t shout it out loud.  But we THINK it, huddling protectively over our story ideas as though someone was going to steal them if we let them out of our sight for a second.

Well, I hate to break it to you:  you can’t copyright an idea.  You also can’t copyright your book’s title.  The only thing that’s protected by copyright is the story you write – the whole exact story.  (Here’s more on copyright and book titles, if you’re interested.)

But the happy flipside of that is that theft is really rare in the world of children’s writers.  So you can comfortably chat about your story ideas, your titles, or anything else.  Your ideas won’t be stolen, for instance, if you …

  • workshop them in a class or course
  • submit them to a mainstream publishing company
  • talk about them at a party
  • work on them on a laptop over a public network, like a coffee shop

Most writers actually have one of two main concerns when it comes to story theft: 

Either someone will steal their story idea, or someone will steal the story itself, in digital form. 

For most of us, neither of these is really a huge concern, as we’ll see.

Worried that someone will steal your idea?

See, here’s the thing:  even if somebody steals your idea, they cannot steal the thing that makes your book special – YOU.

You are the one who has taken the great idea and put in the hours, the blood, sweat and tears to flesh that idea out.  You’ve created the characters, the setting, the timeline, the events that make up the plot.

Even if somebody else takes your idea, they’ll still have to imagine everything else from scratch. 

If you want to see what I mean, here’s a terrific book synopsis.  Somebody should write this… maybe even as a series.

Several noble houses fight a civil war over who should be king, while an exiled princess tries to find her place in the world, and the kingdom is threatened by some rising supernatural threat in the north.  (Game of Thrones)

As I hope you can see, it’s already been written, but because you nobody can copyright ideas, there is absolutely nothing stopping you or anybody else from writing a book based on this EXACT premise.  Because no matter what you do, unless you are plagiarizing directly, your book will naturally come out different from the original.

Here’s one more, just for fun:

A neglected orphan boy learns that he’s a wizard.  He makes friends while studying at a school for magic and discovers his destiny, gaining and losing loved ones and friends and eventually saving the wizarding world from the evil dark lord.  (Harry Potter)

Again, there’s lots of room for rewriting this story.  And nobody can stop you, because nobody can copyright an idea.

(If you don’t want to create something too similar, substitute “understands animals” for “he’s a wizard” and you’ve got a totally different book book… substitute “mutant” and there’s another.  How about “psychic”?)

I hope you’re starting to see why nobody can copyright ideas.  They’re simply too vague; there are too many different stories that could possibly flow from a single idea.

But what if your story’s already written and you want to make sure nobody steals the whole entire thing?

Worried that someone will steal your entire story?

Lots of beginning writers are too protective of their stories.  But writer Cory Doctorow (who has some great books in the Young Adult category) says “For me -- for pretty much every writer -- the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity.”  (He credits Tim O’Reilly for this aphorism, so I should, too.)

(Want to read more from Cory Doctorow on piracy vs obscurity?)

Stop worrying that an editor or agent is going to steal your idea.  If you’ve been plastering your manuscripts with copyright notices, stop.  A simple notice on the front page is enough, though you can include your name on the pages of the manuscript if you like.

Why should you trust them?  Hopefully, you have found them through a reputable source and have verified that they’re competent professionals.  Nobody would last long in this business stealing other writers’ stories, and they probably wouldn’t make much money at it even if they tried.

(Here are six great reasons why editors won’t steal your story.)

Who else might steal your story?

While it’s possible that a writing teacher might take your story and claim it as her own, but again, this is a person you’ve chosen based on reputation, and something like that would probably get out pretty quickly.

What about your fellow students?

To be honest, if you’re workshopping your stories in a class with other writers, they’re probably more obsessed with their own stories than with yours.  Think about it:  they’re as much in love with their own ideas as you are with yours (I hope).  They may not even like your story very much, if they’re that much in love with their own.

And even if they do fall in love with your story, it’s just as likely that they’ll want to help you succeed with it.  People don’t generally write kids’ stories to get rich quick; they do it because they love children and want to share great books with them.

Protecting yourself just in case

If you’re still worried about sharing your ideas or your story, either before or after publication, you can take a few sensible measures, such as including a copyright notice (only one!) at the beginning of your manuscript, and including your name and contact information anywhere that you include even a short portion of your story.

There are a few other common-sense steps you can take:

  • Don’t post large sections of your manuscript to public message boards (such as on LinkedIn or facebook)
  • Don’t bulk-email your manuscript to long lists of agents or editors (not a great policy anyway, for so many reasons)
  • Discuss copyright openly before sharing your manuscript with beta-readers, proofers, editors, etc.
  • If you’re a writer, discuss with your illustrator how much of your book the illustrator will be allowed to share in his/her personal portfolio
  • When sharing information about your book on a personal blog, be sure to prominently include copyright messages and contact information.
  • Read this post for five quick facts about copyright that won’t bore you to tears.

How NOT to protect yourself:  turn off Look Inside

One last word of caution:  I’ve seen too many self-publishing writers who choose not to use’s “Look Inside” feature.  Why? 

I can’t think of a single good reason to disable Look Inside.  Here’s are the possible messages this step actually sends to your potential readers:

  • I am afraid someone will look inside my book!
  • It’s MY book – no stealing!
  • It’s so great you don’t need to look before you buy!
  • It’s so terrible you might not like it, so buy it anyway, sight unseen!

Are any of these you?  If not, please don’t worry so much about your rights when you’re putting your book up for sale on Amazon. 

Instead, remember Cory Doctorow’s line.  Your problem isn’t piracy – it’s obscurity.  So – just for a second – forget copyright, open up your books and make sure you’re showing as much as possible to ALL your potential readers.

Are you worried about copyright or idea theft?  Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

[image credit:  Tanimori via Wikimedia]


  1. We agree that writers cannot be paranoid about their idea being stolen. But there are plenty cases to prove that idea theft does exist. Don't you think then, that it is better to register an idea and inform those involved of a third party watching over? Deter and not defend.

    1. I believe there are lots of companies out there, like yours, hoping to make money from authors who don't know any better and think they can "register an idea." Imagine how expensive it would be to police and patrol ideas. Luckily, in most cases, it's not necessary. And in my experience, it's nothing but a waste of time and money.

  2. Just found this:


As always, I love to hear from you.