Thursday, May 1, 2008

Pythons Attack!

Today I was reading a children's blog and came across a story that had the same title as mine and plot as mine. The plot line may not be unique, however, it is a true story that happened to my sister's and I. The only difference in the story is that she used chickens as character and I used people. I feel that this author stole my idea. What should I do? How do I prove that the idea was mine first?
How do you mean she "stole" it? Do you think this author saw your own writing and took the title and plotline? That would be unethical, but also could be very hard to prove. (Aren't you using a critique group? They improve your writing and they provide witnesses.)

...Or do you mean that somehow the same idea for a children's book occurred to you both? In that case she's done nothing wrong, even if the idea came to you first.

Some people seem to think their ideas are equivalent to intellectual property. And it's true that some ideas are. Let's look at some examples.

1. Here's a guy who has an idea for a flying car. He hasn't built a flying car. His idea is that it will be aerodynamic and red with sparkles.

2. Here's another guy who has an idea for a flying car. He hasn't built a flying car. His idea is a detailed plan for the engineering and construction of a flying car--a set of complete blueprints which, if executed in physical form, would produce a real flying car.

One of these guys has intellectual property. The other has a daydream.

1. Here's a guy with an idea for a story. He hasn't written it down. His idea is that it will be about a girl, a pumpkin, and a fairy who makes fantastically uncomfortable shoes.

2. Here's another guy with an idea for a story. He hasn't written it down. His idea is a completely formed, sentence-by-sentence expression of a story about a girl, a pumpkin, and a fairy who makes fantastically uncomfortable shoes.

One of these guys has intellectual property. The other has a daydream.

You may have recognized that plotline. It didn't belong to the Brothers Grimm when they wrote it down, and it doesn't belong to either of these hypothetical guys, either. It's just a plotline.

The plotline of a group of orphans who explore new places on their own—and thwart criminals—does not belong to Lemony Snicket or Gertrude Chandler Warner or Trenton Lee Stewart.

The plotline of a boy who finds out he has extraordinary abilities and has to go away to a school for those abilities—and vanquish evil—does not belong to J. K. Rowling, or Jane Yolen, or Rick Riordan, or Trenton Lee Stewart ...or fricking anyone else.

An idea is just an idea until it is developed and expressed. If it's a car idea, it needs to be expressed in blueprints. If it's a story idea, it needs to be expressed in words.

As I've said before, in storytelling, as in pretty much everything, expression makes all the difference.

15 comments:

Robert said...

"Here's another guy with an idea for a story. He hasn't written it down. His idea is a completely formed, sentence-by-sentence expression of a story about a girl, a pumpkin, and a fairy who makes fantastically uncomfortable shoes."

Actually, the fact that he hasn't written it down could be problematic when it comes to whether he has created "intellectual property." Copyright is born upon "fixation," i.e., writing, recording, posting, or otherwise preserving the material other than in the author's head.

It's pretty rare that anyone who hasn't "fixed" his material would be subject to having it pilfered, since the pilferer would not know about it, but one could imagine, in theory, a minstrel poet who commits his poems only to memory, having his material stolen.

As far as protecting plots is concerned, you are right that basic plots or concepts cannot be protected, but there does come a point when the details of a particular plot can become dense and specific enough to constitute expression that is legally protected. Sure, I can write my own book about a boy wizard who goes to school and has adventures, but if episode after episode and subplot after subplot over seven large volumes kept on corresponding to Rowling's books, my use of completely different sentences or modes of story-telling ultimately would not protect me. Just ask Art Buchwald, who, as I recall, won a lawsuit when a studio stole his movie idea.

Carly said...

I'm so glad you mentioned Trenton Lee Stewart. Today is the release date for The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey! I can't WAIT!!!!!

cslarsen said...

So maybe my story, 'Larry Potter and the Chronicles of Farnia' is original?

Editorial Anonymous said...

"but there does come a point when the details of a particular plot can become dense and specific enough to constitute expression that is legally protected"

That's true. However, if we're talking about the plotline of something that actually happened in real life, that series of events, however specific, does not belong to anyone. Even the people it happened to.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Plus, if it happened to you, it probably happened to someone else at some point too.....

I'd also guess that, in general, the people who try to steal your ideas aren't the people who are BETTER writers than you....

Because most serious writers I've met have a HUGE backlog of stories they'd like to write-- they certainly don't have the time to go around stealing other people's!

Anonymous said...

Off the topic of whether or not an idea is or isn't one's "property" depending on this or that factor - I'd like to pile on here with a different angle. This is not meant as a response to the original question-asker, since I have no idea how exactly she/he imagines someone had access to their idea in order to possibly 'steal' it in the first place.

I cannot count the amount of times perfect strangers have come up to me and told me in vast detail their entire book idea. They are not even usually asking my opinion, and I am most definitely not ever expressing interest in hearing this stuff, so I cannot actually imagine their motivation. In one notable case, a person also told me she created a website to help her sell the book idea. It fully detailed the clever non-fiction concept. That person eventually sold her book idea, only to have a book with the same title and basic idea published in the very same month.

Seems like theft right? That is easy to imagine. Problem is, because of how widely she broadcast her unpublished idea, I can also easily imagine a scenario in which the 'theft' could even have happened accidentally and innocently. The more someone indiscriminately tells everyone they meet about a work in progress, the more it becomes something that may inadvertently be 'stolen' just by becoming 2nd hand conversation or hearsay. What if someone saw the website detailing this clever book idea, mentioned it to someone who mentioned it to someone else? Who mentioned it to someone else, but by then, the original source is long lost? I am not trying to increase paranoia, but I do feel like some cases of 'theft' are also simply people yacking way too much about their wonderful idea to anyone who will listen, and may be 'stolen' by people so far removed from the original conversation that they might not even know they are stealing something: they just heard what sounded like a neat idea and went ahead and developed it as a book.

ChrisEldin said...

...what Deidre said.

And so many people 'talk' about writing a book as if it's easy just to sit down and start typing. But actually finishing the book is another story. Let alone critiquing, editing, etc.

Anonymous said...

So, I'm working on revisions to an MG. And I heard about Hollywood’s plans for a remake of an 80's teen movie that sounds like it had a similar premise as my book. There are many different subplots, details, etc. But the elevator pitch is very close to mine. How do I know if I have been subconsciously stealing all along? I thought I was being totally original! Do I scrap the whole thing at this point?

Anonymous said...

A creative writing instructor told us to go with the eleventh scenario when developing plots & stories, because ten other people have probably had the same idea before you thought of it. All of us have similar expriences, similar ideas. The challenge comes in the finished product.

Deirdre Mundy said...

.... I'm suddenly filled with an overwhelming, irresitable desire to watch "Pretty in Pink" followed by "Say Anything."

Must resist....must not expose kids to 80s teen melodrama at such an impressionable age......

Seriously, though, anon 3:33 -- OF COURSE you borrowed subconciously from the 80's teen movies! Every writer is influenced by the work that came before.....

The trick is to make sure that you're giving the story new life.

So... Breakfast Club, with the same stock characters, etc. --Bad...

"The Wide Sargosso Sea" -- Good.

"Lavinia" By Ursula Le Guin -- SO MUCH FUN. Read it now!

working illustrator said...

I think this connects, in a way, to our previous discussion about voice. If plotlines and narrative situations are more or less accessible to everyone, the importance of an individual author's sentence-by-sentence use of language becomes that much more important.

There's a reason why we don't remember Shakespeare's sources for Hamlet as well as we remember Hamlet.

Kimberly Lynn said...

Editorial Anonymous said:

“That's true. However, if we're talking about the plotline of something that actually happened in real life, that series of events, however specific, does not belong to anyone. Even the people it happened to.”

Even the people it happened to? Oh sheesh. Say it isn’t so! I can’t even have rights to my own darn life?! This just freaks me out . . .

I’m going to the kitchen to mix up something extremely toxic.

lynnekelly2000 said...

I was wondering too how the original poster thinks it could have happened that the author stole her idea; it's highly unlikely, maybe even impossible, unless the story was posted in some public place or if they had a conversation about it. And for the book to have been published already, that author must have had the idea a couple of years ago at least.

I'd say go ahead and write the book you were thinking of, but make sure you're meeting with a critique group to give you feedback and help you revise your story.

Mary said...

Ideas float around in the ether. It’s quite common for artists to have similar ideas at the same time because we’re all influenced by the current culture. (This is also how trends occur.) As you said, it’s the expression of the idea (not the idea itself) that creates the unique piece of work.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, that while much of the time similar stories that emerge are either coincidence or the collective consciousness at work, theft DOES occur. Make no mistake. And it occurs in the illustration world, too.

That said, this brings up a related point that bugs the crap out of me even more: that often it is reviewers in cranky review journals, that are the first to write (unoriginally and repetitively I might add): "Derivative of "such and such." Better to read so and so's" blah blah blah, which is better."

That kid of idiotic reviewing is scream worthy. Sometimes, the stories that get reviewed like this were actually written long before the others of like ilk. They were just published later for some reason. These comments are subjective at best, and flat out wrong at worst (as are many reviews, period)

Really, people say to "write the story you have to tell." And we do. But then you read words like that it's like a knife in your heart.

And that's the same heart that knows it is YOUR story that you told, even if someone else had one just like it.

Ugh.