Recently there was a very interesting discussion on the boards about one of the blueboarders who had what they thought was a terrible experience with a published author they admired. Since specific details of issues raised on the boards should not be discussed off the boards, I will discuss this issue generally and hypothetically. The fan met the author they admired at a conference and went to speak to the author afterwards. Because the fan was excited about their own writing project and because the author writes in the genre the fan is working on their exciting new writing project, the fan in an admiring gush tells the author all about their exciting new project. The fan is then crushed when the author provides a lukewarm response and seems to even question if the fan knows what they are doing. Upset, the fan thinks this was a horrible experience.
I thought this was a great topic to discuss and the posts it generated ranged from "So sorry you had to deal with such a jerk!" to "Perhaps the author was having a bad day." But the one post that stuck in my head was by a multi-published author who said it was not fair on the author to have other writers topics shoved at them. For example, an author is working on a certain specific topic and is pitched the same topic at a conference by an attendee. The author then feels they must scratch that idea so that they are not accused of stealing the idea. I thought, wow, isn't that a sad statement of what our society has come to that we are so litigious that writers might be afraid to work on something in fear of a lawsuit? It reminds me of my OB-GYN, the most wonderful doctor in the whole world who delivered all 3 of my girls and is now no longer delivering babies because he can't afford the insurance coverage due to high litigious that practice area has become. Wow this country needs some serious tort law reform, and fast!
But I digress. This was a very interesting point for me because having worked in productions, I know that most production companies will not accept any unsolicited materials unless it comes with a signed submission release form. I have always been surprised that agents don't use these forms either but let me stay on topic. The submission release form is basically an agreement that a writer signs agreeing that the production company may or may not already have similar ideas in development. It essentially releases the production company from the claim of stealing ideas. However, I have known of cases where less reputable companies have deliberately taken ideas from submitted materials and claimed they had already had these ideas in development.
To give you an idea of what you sign when submitting to production companies, here is the introduction to MTV's submission release form.
MTV NETWORKS POLICY CONCERNING SUBMISSION OF IDEAS AND OTHER MATERIALS
MTV NETWORKS wishes to acquaint all those who have been kind enough to submit
materials, including ideas, proposals, marketing or promotional plans, program formats, literary material, artwork, video and musical compositions, with the problem that faces us in reviewing, investigating, inspecting and evaluating these materials. Much of the material that is now being submitted embodies materials, suggestions or ideas substantially similar or identical to those which have been developed by our staff or which have been submitted by others. Further, we may begin using material similar or identical to yours which we received after the date of your submission. Accordingly, we feel that we can receive and review materials only if it is left up to us to determine whether we have in fact used these ideas and to decide what compensation should be paid in event of use.
Because of this, it is our policy to require the signing of the enclosed release before considering any solicited or unsolicited material, ideas, proposals, marketing or promotional plans, program formats, literary material, videos and musical compositions. (MTV.com)
Now an author can't go around asking people to sign this type of release form before they talk to them about their ideas, but the lawyer part in me thinks that it is a good idea to have a policy NOT to discuss another writer's ideas when approached randomly and publicly. Exceptions of course for friends, families and critique groups. Although recently I heard of an allegation of idea theft which arose within an online critique group so nothing seems to be sacred.
There is a reason why many of the high profile authors have a no manuscript review policy. While an idea is not copyrightable, given the wide access of the internet, an accusation of theft of an idea can be just as damaging to an author even without an accompanying lawsuit. So what can be done about it? I'm not sure. And I'm not saying that the original author was right. How can I without knowing all the specifics? But I am saying that there is alot to think about and worry about. And I can't help but wonder what if the author had a similar project he was working on and was taken aback by the fan's excited discussion of their own project. Who knows what the real story is. But given the fact that individual authors don't have the protection of submission release forms like the big companies do, is it any wonder that people are a little leery? Thoughts anyone?