Tuesday, July 22, 2014

STEALING IDEAS

Bart was cribbing off of Milhouse that moment
I think every author at least some point in their career worries that someone might steal their idea or their concept and use it.  Certainly plagiarism has been a problem in the past, and every so often you will read about a lawsuit where someone stole an idea from someone else and used it.

With the internet, the concern becomes even more real to writers.  Fair or not, legal or not, everything you post online effectively much becomes public domain.  While technically posting something on the internet makes it copyrighted to the originator, it also places the work on the world's biggest, most readily accessible research database.  You own the copyright to that picture, but you just made it free to use for everyone on earth.

So posting an idea or a story section, a chapter, a prologue etc online is laying it out there for more than six billion people to look at and use as they desire.  Which can be pretty intimidating, especially if you're just starting out.

Later, he used copyrighted work for the cover
Certainly I would tell everyone flat out to never post their entire book online somewhere that can be just grabbed and read.  In other words, don't blog your book and leave it out there for anyone with a search engine to see for free.  Its one thing to have a giveaway of your book on a pay site, but another entirely to just give it to the world in its entirety.

But if you post a story concept, or a piece of your book online, you are safe enough. Your concept on the internet is like one grain of sand on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, including the newly designated "Southern Ocean."  The internet is so vast, chances are nobody will even see it.

But more than that, even if someone does find it, you're still pretty safe.  Let me illustrate.  I have a book concept that goes like this:
A great evil has been defeated at great cost, by the forces of good and light.  Yet all is not good, as over time the forces of light begin to take away freedom and control the people more and more.  The kingdom becomes more like San Angeles in Demolition Man where well-meaning political correctness and enforced speech codes and behavior reduce liberty, creativity, strength, ambition, and purpose to ruins.  In desperation a small group of rebels reaches out to the great evil, freeing the great leader of the evil forces to save them from the heroes that have enslaved their souls, if not their bodies.
There's the book concept, the whole thing.  Some day I might get it written, but I have a good half dozen books between now and then lined up for writing.  Now look that over, its kind of a neat idea, right?


But I've written three novels and several gaming books by now and I know how hard it is to write a book.  I know how long it takes, how much effort is involved in rewrites, editing, design, layout, cover creation and so on.  This isn't like giving someone a recipe before the big competition.  Writing a book is months and even years of effort.

So stealing the idea isn't enough.  You have to make it into an actual product.  That's not to say someone might not do it, and more power to 'em, I'd like to read the book.  One of the biggest reasons I write books is that I'd like to read the stories I tell.  And as I said, every so often, someone gets sued for plagiarism - usually its for articles and academic papers, but it happens with full novels, too.

But even if someone took my idea and wrote the story, they wouldn't write the same book I would.  I have left out significant key details and ideas of the story I have in mind from that synopsis.  They're stored in my mind and notes for my own use and how it would turn out.  I could give a lot more, but that's the part I treasure close to my heart.  Its not so much I don't want it stolen as I want it to be a surprise and a delight to readers, so they can't hear about it yet.

Consider the Harry Potter books.  Great stuff, right?  Brilliant, original idea, right?  Not so much.  The English Public School book has been written hundreds of times in the past.  Stories about kids learning they are special and getting training is not unique in any way.  Stories about magic behind the scenes in the modern world, stories about a prophesied One who saves everyone from the dark overlord are hardly unique.

But Tim skated away with Hermione later
Oh but Harry Potter combines these in a special way, right?  Well again not exactly.  Neil Gaiman, for example wrote a series of books about a young boy who learns he's a wizard a years before Rowling published Harry Potter.  Both Harry Potter and Timothy Hunter in the Books of Magic series have glasses, are young boys, have a pet owl, learn they are destined to be great wizards, and fight against an evil force.

In fact, the basic thesis of the Harry Potter stories had been done several times before.  In the British sci fi/fantasy anthology comic 2000 AD (home of Judge Dredd), a story about a young boy wizard very similar to both concepts came out in 1988.

When asked about it, Neil Gaiman shrugged and said they were all drinking from the same well.  This article at io9 shows all the various books with Harry Potter similarities that people have claimed Rowling stole from, and why that's without merit.

The fact is, there's nothing new under the sun.  After so many thousands of years of human invention, storytelling, and literature, all the stories have been told.  Your brilliant original idea has already been done by someone else, at least to some degree, in the past.  And that's fine.

Because when you tell your story, you are telling a new and different version of that story.  What you do with the story, how you build your world, how you assemble the plot, how you develop characters, what you describe, what dialog you write and so on all are yours.  Despite the similarities between the Books of Magic, The Journal of Luke Kirby, and Harry Potter, all three are unique and different because of how the stories are told.

So even if, in the unlikely instance it happens, your concept is swiped by someone else, they won't be telling your story.  They'll be telling their story, and what you write will be your very own.

In other words: its extremely unlikely anyone will steal your idea, even if they do, its hard work to get a book out using that idea, and even if somehow they manage to, it still won't be your idea, it will be merely inspired by your idea.

And if someone does really rip you off and steal everything, duplicating your concepts and writing, well you have an even better level of protection for your idea than in the past; the internet is a very reliable and legally recognized time stamp for copyright.  Proving you came up with it first and wrote the story first is easier now than in the past when people relied on stunts like mailing themselves letters or would pay to register their copyright with the government.

Its okay to be careful with your work, but you needn't be fearful about theft or plagiarism by simply mentioning an idea or asking for help with it.  There's a long road between a thought and a published book.