|Rx for Writers|
Jan Fields is webeditor and instructor for the Institute of Children's Literature. In 2013, she will have eleven books coming out with ABDO/Magic Wagon! All of her books were done as work for hire and include nonfiction, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and action/adventure. Check out her website at http://www.janfields.com
"What if They Steal My Idea?"
by Jan Fields
Honestly, the only way to absolutely ensure no one steals an "idea" is to never send out your work. Then when a book or story or poem with a similar premise or tone or structure or characters is published, you'll know it's simply a coincidence of the creative tone of a society. For every story or poem presently on anyone's computer, there are dozens (if not hundreds) on other people's computers with strong similarities. It's a function of how culture works -- ideas tend to come in waves. But ideas are not protected under copyright law -- only the execution of the idea. If the "idea" was protected, we wouldn't have quite so many novels with hunky vampires.
Now, for execution, in the United States (and most Western countries), a piece of work is protected under copyright law as soon is it is in fixed form. So something in your head that you just talk about isn't copyright protected but a manuscript (typed or handwritten) is copyright protected. This protection means that only you as the creator have a right to decide how that piece of work is disseminated -- no one may legally publish it without your permission. If you discover someone has published your piece of work without your permission, you may take them to court. Now, before you actually get into the courtroom, you'll need to register the copyright with the U.S. government (if you're in the US -- you can learn about registering here: http://www.copyright.gov/ -- registration effects how much money you can get from a court action. So the question isn't "Should I copyright my work?" but "Should I register the copyright I already have as creator of the work?"
You really don’t need to register your copyright unless (1) you’re the publisher of your own work or (2) you’re preparing to go to court. If you ever self-publish, you should register right away (if you publish with a commercial publisher of respectable size, they will register for you and pay the fee for you. If you're working with a tiny, tiny publisher, ask if they registered -- if they don't, you should.) Once something is published, it NEEDS to be registered (since most copyright violations happen after publication, not before) so if you’re the publisher, you need to register it. If you publish with a reputable magazine, the whole issue is copyright registered at the time of publication, but you’ll want to register your own singular piece if you’re ever going to court about it. And if you publish with a reputable book publisher, they register the book (and pay for it) in the name of the copyright holder (which is usually you, but depends on the contract you signed).
Now, let's talk about how often reputable commercial PUBLISHERS steal your work. About as often as a member of your family wins the lottery or people are killed in dancing accidents. In other words, really, almost never. The only times it does happen with any kind of numbers at all with PUBLISHERS is when writers deal with online content mills (the kinds of places where you sign up and then churn out an article a week for them and -- in theory -- they pay you. These are usually not worthwhile uses of your time and talent). These content mills have been known to ask you to write a “sample” project and later, you’ll find your “sample” online without anyone having paid you. Again, this doesn’t happen all the time, not even with content mills, but it’s one reason to avoid them. Large reputable companies will not consider your "samples" to be theirs to do with as they wish -- but content mills (and sometimes tiny out-of-country publishers) aren't completely above it so be careful.
Another thing to watch is publishers who are so new/inexperienced/unprofessional that they just don't realize that submitting something doesn't mean permission to print. In the second case, the publisher publishes your piece, puts your name on it and PAYS you but doesn't let you know until the piece comes out in print. So, it’s “surprise, we published you” – but in these cases you did submit to them with intent to publish and they aren’t pretending the piece isn’t yours. So that’s really not “stealing” your idea though it can lead to embarrassment if you submitted to more than one publisher and you sell the piece to one place only to have the second pop up and publish without discussing it with you. That's a no-no and can even leave you in breach of contract with the place you actually promised the piece to, but a lot of really tiny newsletter publishers and online publishers don't seem to know that. Sometimes it's startling what the really tiny, non-professional publishers don't know. One way to avoid any chance of that is to stick to professional publishers -- that means publishers whose work ends up in libraries and bookstores. Publishers who make their money by publishing work they've paid for.
So who is in danger of stealing your work? In nearly every case, copyright violations occur AFTER publication. What happens is that your poem appears in a book or magazine and you get paid...then some reader reads it and likes it and decides to type it into an email (without your name as author, usually) and then sends it to everyone on her contact list....who sends it to everyone on their contact lists...and some of them post it on Facebook...and on and on. Nearly all those cute, funny little stories that folks pass around in email are violations of someone's copyright -- publishing someone's work without pay or attribution. It'll kill your chance of reselling the piece and there really isn't a whole lot you can do about it...except maybe encourage folks YOU know not to pass around those cute stories in email. But that's really trying to hold back the ocean with a sieve.
Another way copyright is violated is when something appears in publication online (say you sell to an online magazine) and someone sees it and likes it and thinks everything online is free. So the person copies it to their website or to a message board post or onto Facebook. Again, this happens now and then -- mostly with poetry or nonfiction. Usually if you see it, you can email the person and he/she will remove the piece promptly. Honestly, like the business of sending email with copyrighted work -- folks just don't know better.
Another way copyright is violated is with very popular books. People scan them and put them online as free (or even paid) downloads for folks who want to read the bestseller but don't want to pay for it. This is called pirating and happens online quite a lot, but almost always only with really popular books.
So, what are the chances your unpublished work will be "stolen" by a publisher? Virtually nil. Sure, you might send a poem to HIGHLIGHTS with a bunny in it that is about spring and they might reject it and the next month you might see a poem that is also about spring and has a bunny in it and maybe even some of the same end rhymes on lines (since there are only so many words that rhyme with spring or bunny) -- and you might feel like they must have stolen your idea -- but what has happened it that HIGHLIGHTS bought a poem coincidentally similar to yours (usually years ago) and is running it now. That's why they rejected yours -- they already had one like it. 99.9% of the time when people say actual commercial print publishers have "stolen" their work, this is what has happened. Often the "stealing" isn't even possible since the time frame is too tight...publishers can take months to a year to several years to publish magazine pieces and several years to publish a book. So something you see two months after you got your rejection slip really is not even POSSIBLE to be someone "stealing" your idea. It was just someone with the same idea who got it out there first.
Even with an idea that feels fresh and new to you -- someone else has it. The Harry Potter books had strong similarities to DOZENS of books, even though many people felt they were very fresh and very new. It was all in how the ideas were used. We all come from a similar cultural pool so we tend to produce work with similarities of IDEA. That's why you can't get copyright protection for ideas, only for the actual execution of the work in fixed form.
But publishers really have no interest in stealing your work. Writers come pretty cheap. The bills for editing your work, paying to have the illustrations made, paying printers and shipping -- publishers invest massive amounts in bringing your book to print. And if they steal "your idea" then they still have to pay whomever actually writes the book/story/poem -- so why not just pay you? It's easier. It's cheaper. And it's a lot less likely to create problems for them down the road (imagine the blackmail potential of having a magazine pay you to rewrite a stolen manuscript!). Paying you simply isn't that expensive that there is ANY good reason to cut you out of the deal.
So...how do you keep someone from stealing your idea? You really can't because ideas cannot by copyrighted, only how you execute the idea (which is good, because virtually every idea you can imagine has already been done so we writers would basically never write again if all the ideas were copyright protected.) How do you keep someone from stealing your story/poem? -- the government is doing their best to prevent that now with copyright law and it's not incredibly likely anyway as long as you deal with reputable publishers (meaning avoid little hole-in-the-wall Internet publishers with ugly websites full of typos...those really aren't likely to be professional outfits) because it's just cheaper/easier to pay you than to steal from you -- so there's no actual VALUE in stealing from you.
Now, having said that…there have been cases where a writer pitches (or just submits) a nonfiction article on a specific unusual topic, say presidential allergies. But the writer’s execution is bad enough that the publisher doesn’t think that writer has the skills to write that piece up to a publishable level. So the publisher rejects it. But the publisher kind of liked the idea of having an article on presidential allergies and ponders it and eventually asks a professional writer to write something on presidential allergies. This doesn’t happen very often, since writers who come up with really good ideas that match a market really well are also usually competent to write those ideas into articles. But I have heard of cases where it has happened. The way to protect yourself from this is to make sure every query or article you send to a publisher is super clean, super clear, and revised to publication standards (I know they have editors, but if you send something nonfiction that is riddled with errors, they can’t trust your professionalism and they won’t use your work). So the best way to avoid this kind of problem -- be professional and competent.
Finally, how do you protect your work from the situations where ACTUAL stealing happens – the post-publication stealing? Once your work is published, just do a Google search every now and then for key lines from the work...just to see if someone has decided it's good enough that they copied it out of HIGHLIGHTS or scanned your book or whatever. Then when you find someone who has done it...email them and tell them to knock it off. If they don't, register your copyright with the federal office (unless the publisher has already done it for you...you'll see the notice with the work if they have), and then contact a lawyer and discuss options for suing (note: lawsuits are expensive and based on what the item was "worth" which tends to mean writers don't get a ton of money from them, but sometimes you can decide to sue anyway for the principle of the thing).
Overall, know that worry over someone stealing your idea is probably a misplaced use of your energy. If your idea is well executed, then YOU are the one the editor wants to buy from. So the very best way to avoid any problem is to keep your ideas to yourself until the piece is finished, then revise it and revise it and do not send it ANYWHERE until you’re confident that it is as professional as anything in the market (which you know because you’re such a huge reader of the kinds of material you’re trying to sell, right?). Then send only to reputable publishers that you have researched well. Really, investing your energy in those things will help you have the career you want.
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