Protecting Your Idea

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Last week I wrote about two ways your work can be used without your permission: plagiarism and piracy. But questions have come up about another kind of problem that worries writers:

What if someone steals your idea, and writes a book on the same topic as you?

Angela Mills wrote:

I’m finishing up my first novel and I feel it’s a pretty timely, unique idea. I have scoured Christian fiction bookstores and catalogs and haven’t found any book with this kind of plot/setting. Should I keep the idea to myself until I find an agent and get it sold? I’m one of those people that doesn’t like to talk about what I’m writing anyway, but I’m trying to figure out how to answer when other writers ask what my book is about. 

The best way to deal with this particular situation is simply to be vague when discussing your book. Don’t give details about your plot or subject matter. “It’s a romance set against the backdrop of a modern day reality show,” or “It’s a story about life in Auschwitz during World War II.”

The bigger question on many writers’ minds seems to be, what if other authors are writing books on the same idea as mine?

My philosophy has always been that you can give 100 writers the same book idea, and you’d end up with 100 different books. While there are some really great ideas out there, and some ideas are better than others, the execution is what matters and determines whether readers enjoy the book. The “same idea” isn’t going to result in the “same book.” Additionally, many readers don’t mind reading multiple books with similar ideas, and may even seek them out. So it’s usually not a problem.

I sense the real question on people’s minds, the one nobody’s asking, is, “What if somebody takes my fantastic, original idea, and writes a book better than mine?” It’s not a completely irrational thought, but neither is it something on which to focus. It’s a fear, and should be put in its place as such.

Top SecretIn response to last week’s blog post, Stephanie wondered about “when you are seeking representation for your completed novel and a book with 80% of your plotline gets published by one of the Big 6.” Do you start over? Do you completely change everything in the book? What does one do?

This is certainly disappointing, but not uncommon. The collective consciousness is powerful, and it causes numerous people to come up with startlingly similar story ideas around the same time. It makes sense—we live in the same world, experience the same culture, hear the same news stories. Since we share similar influences, it’s not surprising that we create similar stories.

So what do you do? In most cases, I wouldn’t advise scrapping your work, especially if it’s complete or nearly so. As mentioned above, your plot may be the same but everything else will be yours—your writing style, your voice, your unique perspective. Go forward bravely! You should probably still seek publication. Meanwhile, you’ll be working on your next story, right?

Think about how many important moments in history have been written about in dozens, hundreds or even thousands of books. Why is that? Because each author brings a fresh perspective. Each new book adds something valuable to the conversation. Yours can, too.

On a related note, a writer recently wrote me that she was concerned about the submission guidelines for S & S’s new digital-first imprint, which read:

“In connection with your Submission, you acknowledge that Simon451 may already be exploring, may have already explored, or may in the future explore publications with concepts and ideas generated by others that are similar to and may resemble your Submission. As a condition of your Submission, you agree that you shall not have any claim against Simon451 arising out of any such similarity in any future publications by Simon451 and third parties.”

I responded that it’s common for writers to submit stories with themes and plots that are similar to one another, then later assume their idea was “stolen” when in fact, people just naturally, independently come up with the same ideas.

In fact, the problem of writers claiming a publisher stole their idea is one of the reasons publishers stopped accepting unsolicited submissions from unagented authors — to protect themselves from claims of idea theft. This publisher is now accepting submissions from writers and they want to mitigate the risk of lawsuits, so they’ve included this notice.

In my earlier days, I worked for a television network and we were exposed to the same risk. For that reason, all unsolicited submissions from writers were returned unopened (this was the era of snail mail) so the writer could never claim we stole their idea, since we never read it.

Is it possible for your idea to actually be stolen? Yes. Has it happened? Sadly, yes. But I maintain that your focus needs to be straight ahead on your work. Protect yourself as much as reasonably possible, but don’t obsess over it.

Ever had an idea stolen? Have you worried about it? What are some ways you protect yourself?

Tweet this: What if someone steals your idea, and writes a book on the same topic as you?

Image credit: dinozzz / 123RF Stock Photo

 

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50 Comments

  • It seem like the same is true in non-fiction. There are lots of books on a given topic, but a new author’s approach will almost always be different.

    I wonder if a key to alleviating the fear of idea theft is openness and a solid platform. If one is visibly engaged with a topic, say on a blog, does it sort of claim a bit of territory?

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Good point, Gary. If you are writing on a topic with which you’re already comfortable and educated, and known for it, then perhaps the worries are fewer. Still, it may be more about who each author is individually as a person.

  • Angela Mills says:

    So I’ll keep my Amish Vampires idea to myself then…

    Just kidding.

    I really like the idea of being vague! Thanks for this post and for answering my question the other day. I like how you said 100 people could write the same story and we’d end up with 100 different books. Very true!

  • This is the principle that I operate by and that I expressed in one of my books:

    “Don’t worry about people
    stealing your great idea.
    If your idea has the potential
    to change the world, you will be
    lucky to get just one person
    to listen to it.
    To have a person steal it,
    this would be a miracle.”
    — from “Life’s Secret Handbook”

    When I got fired from my Engineering job in 1980, I decided to take two years off, to not work at any job and to not go to school of any type. It was at that time that I realized most people don’t know how to joyfully handle their spare time. I thought that I should write a book about how to handle leisure time. But I also thought, “Who am I to write a book. I failed English three years in a row while I was in Engineering.”

    In 1991, I got around to writing the book and called it “The Joy of Not Working (A Book for the Retired, Unemployed, and Overworked”. After the book became a success, several people told me that they had an idea for a similar book and could have easily written “The Joy of Not Working.”

    I replied, “In fact, I had the idea for the book over 10 years before I wrote it. I gave you ten years to write it — and you still didn’t! So why didn’t you?” Of course, none of these people have a valid answer, just a bunch of phony excuses.

    I also agree with your comment, “You can give 100 writers the same book idea, and you’d end up with 100 different books.” For example, there are several hundred books about handling money. Yet I know that I can write a book about handling money and make it an international bestseller, like I have with three of my other books. I will not share my great title and great subtitle, however, until I get around to releasing the book. You can have my idea for writing a book on how to handle money, however.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  • Anne Love says:

    This a wonderful post topic. When I finished my last MS and set about doing my market analysis, I frantically texted and emailed my crit partner when I discovered a “Big 6″ author scheduled to release a book in the next six months startlingly similar to mine. I didn’t know if that meant I was on the right track with a “Big 6″ idea, or doomed to never get a shoe in the door before someone else had a similar idea. My crit partner had something very similar happen. The panic is after you pour a year and heart and soul into your MS, to feel it was for nothing. But writing is never for nothing. I shelved my MS after shopping it around, and now I’m on to the next WIP. It’s the writing, it’s the stories that are the most important to focus on. Thanks for the reassurance.

    I’ve also wondered, when you are trying to garner some interest in your WIP from your readers and the works are not yet published, I’ve seen people post snippets of their writing online. Is this frowned upon?

  • Great post and some great comments. I write books (and movies) which are targeted at a specific audience and so it is inevitable that there will be others within my genre who develop similar ideas.

    The key, as someone else has mentioned, is to develop your own voice. If you can do that, then people will inevitably be drawn to you rather than the competition.

    It’s a war out there folks! Don’t ever think it isn’t.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Dougie, you bring up a great point that I didn’t mention. This IS a competitive field! I think sometimes we try to pretend it isn’t. Hmm. Maybe a topic for a blog post.

  • Ginger says:

    While editing my WIP, a friend advised I HAD TO read a series that was established and out for a few years. I purchased the book, and found the character and backdrop startling close to my WIP. When the final book in the other series was released, it contained almost an exact scene as my opening chapter. My agent was already shopping my book with publishers at that point, including the publisher of the established series. They noted the similarities, so I was no surprised by their rejection. It happens…you cannot expect your idea to be original. Write the best you can…that is what makes you stand out above others. Unless the other is Richelle Mead, Lol!!!

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      So you know that heart-stopping feeling of discovering your own plot in someone else’s book. Not fun! But you’re right, it happens. Sounds like you’re taking it in stride, as we all should.

  • Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:

    Years ago when she was a relatively new author, Deb Raney published a book, only to discover heavy-hitter Francine Rivers had just released a book with the same plot. Deb thought her book wouldn’t sell, but she believes the similarity actually boosted her sales. So, you never know.

  • This is an EXCELLENT post! Thank you.

  • Stephanie says:

    Thank you for answering my question!! As an author with a completed, edited manuscript seeking representation, even if my original idea was dreamed up first, one of the Big 6 just published a version of my idea and agents arent going to want to see it again. My biggest fear is because of the fact that agents see so many manuscripts, mine ends up getting rejected because they say “I’ve seen it before” even though it is an entirely different story just with a similar over all concept. It’s very frustrating to get constant rejections and not know if it’s your writing, your suddenly popular concept , or your query.

  • Stephanie says:

    Oh and Angela, Amish Vampires have been done- wonderfully I might add. The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    I was dismayed to discover a major character in a book I’m currently writing had been a major character in a series of books written 15 years ago by a best selling writer. With some trepidation, I bought the books (now out of print) and read them over Christmas.

    What a relief! They were so poorly written, anything I wrote would be an improvement!

    And is, of course. :-)

    See? You never know.

    That series should be long forgotten. We’ll see if my idea sells. :-)

  • It’s good to remember that there are ideas that lots of people have, but that my voice, my style will make it unique. My first MS had a topic that was close to my heart. I wrote the story, and then found that two famous authors co-authored a book with a similar theme and mode of moving the story forward. I’ve put that particular story of mine on the shelf, in part because it needs A LOT of work. I’d like to get back to it one day…..

    Rachelle, do you have suggestions for making a story more unique?

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Jeane, “how do you make a story more unique?” That’s a good one — I’m sure I could come up with a whole post on it. Maybe I will.

      I think it has to do with getting out of your comfort zone in every way. Allowing yourself new experiences. Put yourself in different physical locations, surround yourself with people who are not your normal crowd. Watch TV shows you never have before, listen to some new music. Basically, expand your own thinking. Then, make sure you have plenty of time for your imagination to work. Solo hikes in the woods (no iPod) and that sort of thing, whatever opens you up.

      How’d I do?

      • Dear Rachelle,
        I read all of your posts on this blog ( and all those made by others too) and I’ve loved every one of them.I have a word document in which i keep making little notes now and then, based on the advice given here. Thanks a lot. I am a freelance journalist ad reviewer of books, i write short stories and poetry but I never think I’m good enough to get published. However, I aspire to, one day. The tips you’ve given here about making your story unique are very, very useful and I’m going to put them into practice as soon as I can. Thanks so much!

  • Deborah says:

    Timely post! This happens often when I post to my blog or even send out an eblast! Yes, it’s frustrating but I realize that imitations will never be true visionaries. They can’t which is why they steal from others. I write because it’s who I am and who I am they will never be!

    Thanks for sharing!

  • If it’s a good idea that’s stolen, people will want to read it in more than one guise.

    Look at movies – specifically romantic comedies. There aren’t many different plots, and most of the characters fall into the same age group and social strata, but do we ever tire of them? (Yes, I’m a guy…and “Notting Hill” is probably my favorite film…analyze that!)

    The stories that really matter, really touch us, are the ones that we can hear over and over, and slight variations merely add to the interest.

  • There is another element to this which hasn’t been touched on yet.

    As a published author I’m often asked to help people develop their own ideas which more often than not, will actually be attached to the emails. I always respond immediately to such requests and in the same way, with this link http://dougiebrimson.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/feb2/

    I’ve never yet had anyone come back to me with anything other than understanding and thank goodness for that. For never mind having an idea stolen, I cannot think of anything worse than to be actually accused of stealing someone else’s idea.

    • Joseph Snoe says:

      Dougie
      I chuckled at this line: “I never read anything else whilst I’m writing . . . .”

      I found all I was reading was what I read for work (I’m a teacher) and for research. But after hearing admonitions I needed to read as many novels as possible I read a few and I found myself reading more and writing less.

      I may go back to your (and my natural)way (after I finish the book I’m on and a few more I’ve stacked up)

  • I love the idea that no one will ever write a book exactly like I will. Still, I will definitely follow your advice about being vague when describing my book to others. :)

  • Kimberly Jones says:

    The writer in me is very grateful to see this article. My inner-lawyer, however, files for copyright on works before submitting them to various agents, publishers, etc. Here are the questions the writer in me would like to know: Is my lawyer side too bossy or is she behaving wisely? Do you find that filing for copyright helps? Does the existence of a copyright present challenges to the agent or publisher that I should be aware of?

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      I’ve never known filing for copyright to help or hurt, but I’m sure others can come up with examples of each.

      Bottom line, your writer self doesn’t need a lawyer peering over her shoulder. Writer Self needs freedom from fear and she needs to be able to create without worry.

      If having Lawyer Self file copyright gives Writer Self that peace of mind, then by all means, have at it. The way I see it, that’s the main value of it. We all should do whatever necessary to be able to create with peace of mind.

  • Stephanie says:

    Okay, so that whole thing about the universe and the collective consciousness? I got this today.

    http://www.authorpaulastokes.com/2014/01/i-blurbed-book-collective-unconscious.html

    Apparently, this happens to successful, published authors too.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Interesting, huh? There are actually slightly different definitions of this collective unconscious, or “consciousness” as others call it. The author Paula Stokes was referring to a “deeper level of consciousness” only accessible through dreams and mystical experiences. (Hence, she uses the word “unconscious” because it’s deeper.”

      However, it can be much more basic than that. The collective consciousness as I refer to it is all about the fact that we all live in the same world, and are exposed to the same influences, see the same movies and TV shows, read the same books. So it’s not so much about a deeper level of consciousness (the unconscious) but very much about the fact that we all have similar “incoming” so the output can’t help but be similar.

      Either way, she is talking about the same thing!

  • Yes, this does happen. A writer cannot be in this business as long as I have and not see it. However, sometimes the issue is less dastardly more more innocent.

    I know personally of situations where an idea that I discussed with a friend has turned up in that friend’s work, not because my friend wanted to steal my idea but because said friend simply forgot this germ of an idea came from me. Other times, an idea can be kicked around in a group and then, years later, the author only sees the plot and doesn’t recall where it started or to whom it originally belonged.

    I know I am speaking in vague terms, but that is because neither of these authors intended to take an idea that did not originate in their own minds. Rather, because many of us have been at this process of plotting up new stories and then setting them aside only to come back to them later, origins of ideas get jumbled up and forgotten.

    So, to those who have said it is best to keep mum about projects or to only speak to a few trusted souls, I heartily agree. Not because I distrust or suspect other authors. Rather, because ALL of us are far too human to be 100% certain it cannot eventually happen to us.

  • Elissa says:

    Hmm. I don’t like this notion of not talking to people because they might steal my ideas or I might steal theirs. In my experience, bouncing ideas around always makes them better. Think of all the many famous groups of writers/artists/musicians who hung around together and created amazing works.

    I think being too concerned about stealing ideas (or having them stolen) is just another one of those tangents we writers are always taking so we can avoid actually sitting down to write.

    • I’m not saying you don’t talk about your ideas. Brainstorming with other writers is something I love to do. I’m talking about detailed and sharing a fully formed book idea with others, be it in conversation or through critique groups, etc. It happens. Most times it doesn’t happen on purpose.

      Also, I have found that some writers talk about ideas ALOT, sometimes to the point of not writing. An idea that’s bottled up inside will come out eventually. Is it going to be in talking or writing? For me, if I don’t talk about it, I tend to be more inclined to write.

      Or at least that’s how it has worked for me.

      • Elissa says:

        “Also, I have found that some writers talk about ideas ALOT, sometimes to the point of not writing.”– This is entirely too true! :)

        I’m still not worried about anyone in my critique group stealing my ideas, or me stealing from them. In fact, I was flattered when a critique partner highlighted a passage and said, “I’m totally going to steal this!” Maybe I’m just weird.

  • I’ve paid the bills for over 20 years by developing a literature-based language arts program that we market to private Christian schools and homeschoolers. A number of years after our integrated program came out, a new spelling curriculum appeared on the market which copied our visualization techniques almost word for word. I spoke with the authors. Yes, they were aware, but felt their program took the best from what was available in various sources and melded those ideas into their own product. I could have proceeded with a claim against them. Although you cannot copyright an idea, you can the words to express that idea. But I chose not to. Scripture warns against taking a brother to court, and I figured my Protector Father would handle any negative fallout. My business has continued to flourish. I don’t worry about the copycats, but do focus on making sure everything we publish is the best we can make it so no copycat has room to improve what we developed.

    • Rachelle Gardner Rachelle Gardner says:

      Helpful story, Barbara. Thank you. It seems to me that your time is much more profitable when spent moving forward and continuing to do what you do, rather than focus on legal action or even worrying about the copycats.

  • donnie says:

    A good literary guard dog works for me.

  • Calisa Rhose says:

    A cp once pointed out to me that I and another cp had near-identical scenes in our wips a few years back. I stressed that she stole my scene, talked to another cp, researched when we had each submitted our scenes for critiques to the group and could not find when my scene was submitted before hers, though the other cp and I both knew I’d written my scene before the other lady had written that particular chapter. Then I worried that I might have subconsciously stolen her scene! That gave me worse cramps than the other way had, even though my other cp assured me that wasn’t the case because she knew she had critiqued my scene before the other.
    Did she steal from me? I’ll never know, but I took my scene out and sold the ms a year later.

    Now, I won’t read books or critique anything (or exchange my work) that seem to have even similar themes as something I or another are currently writing. Not until my wip is complete in a first draft at least. It’s just safer for me that way. I don’t want to take what someone else has written anymore than I want them to take from me.

  • Kristi Saare Duarte says:

    Thanks Rachel for a great blog – as always.

    I’ve been working on a book for three years, based on an idea I’ve had since I was a child, and I’m on the finishing line with 2-3 months to go until it’s ready to be queried around. Three years of fearing that someone else will publish a book with the same theme before I get mine out there. So, of course I’ve thought a lot about the topic of your blog.

    First, as you say, each person will write their own unique story, none will be exactly like mine.

    Second, I’ve done so much research, read more than 30 books on the topic and related topics, watched as many videos and TV programs I could find about this, there’s no way someone else read exactly the same books and came up with the same POV.

    Third, I’ve put so much effort/love/sweat/time/thoughts into this book, that even if the worst should happen, that someone else – perhaps famous – would write a very similar book about this historical person, I’d still publish my book independently because it’s my love child and I know others would love it too.

    In the beginning I had qualms about giving my idea away by telling others about it. But I’ve found lately (maybe because I’m almost finished) I find it useful to tell others about it, because it’s like practicing what I will write in my query letters. Every time I tell someone about it, I get better at giving them a synopsis, not the whole story. And what’s more, 95% say that it sounds amazing and they would love to read it. Whether or not they actually will read it one day, it gives me more faith in my book and the necessary energy to trudge on until the end.

  • Chapin Garner says:

    I am a Christian preacher and writer and I also teach preaching at a university in Boston. My instruction to my students is always to refrain from taking the ideas of others. If you use another person’s ideas, reference them. Frankly, preachers or writers who steal ideas are missing out on the wonderfully generative work that arises from that task of writing. HOWEVER, as a person of faith myself, I have deep questions about the nature of ideas. Where do they come from? In my tradition [I apologize for preaching a bit], we believe that the Holy Spirit is an important actor in the creative process. Therefore, I never feel I can claim full credit for ideas I put down on paper or speak from the pulpit…they just don’t feel like they are fully mine. When I have seen or heard someone using ideas I suspect they first heard or read from me…I view it as the Holy Spirit re-gifting those thoughts through another person’s voice. Again, I apologize for overly spiritualizing this important question…but as a writer and preacher I am very reluctant to take credit for the ideas I share with the world.

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