Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An interesting issue

I'm going to have a roll out of my new website in the next day or two, so please watch out for that. In the meantime, I have come up for air enough to generate what I think is a very interesting post. There is a wonderful resource for children's writers and illustrators which is hosted by the marvelous author Verla Kay and is known as the blueboards. If you are writing for children or young adults, this is the site for you.

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 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?


Anonymous said...

I can understand both sides. But I don't blame the author really. The aspiring author probably ran up to him/her and was just gushing, which freaks from people out.

My advice: I wanted to meet an author I admired. When he was going to be at a free conference in a nearby town, I e-mailed him and asked could I meet him and would he mind reading my first chapter.

Not only did he agree, we are still friends today. I think that a fan/writer should e-mail their favorite author and know something about them before meeting them in person. The reception will be a lot warmer. :-)

Anonymous said...

i would like to share my thoughts, but if i did then the other person who has the same idea might come after me.


Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm naive, but I just can't get excited about the stealing-of-ideas issue. There is so much involved in the execution of an idea. For example, if Stephen King whispered his idea for a murdering car, could anyone one of us have written Christine? No, because we're not Stephen King.

People would probably be better off protecting the manuscripts they actually write, rather than all the ideas for the ones they didn't.

Anonymous said...

Trident Media Group requires just such a release form before reading a manuscript.

Anonymous said...

Until you have signed that publishing deal your ideas, characters and plot are in very insecure waters. Discussing them at all leaves an author vulnerable. Look at Stephanie Meyer - she sent a trusted friend a 1st draft of The Edward Book (I think the name had something to do with 'dawn' or 'sun') and it ended up on the internet. While I fully appreciate that there are many similar ideas out there, I am very dubious of two people coming up with exactly the same proposition. It seems to me that signing a contract that says that is like begging to have your work stolen.

So much of what we do is on trust. Submissions for instance - who's to stop a would-be author, working in publishing, from taking an old MS off the slush pile and re-working it, for instance?

I just think it's imprudent to go mouthing off to strangers and I think it's rude to inflict yourself on somebody just because you're a fan. Now if the author had asked about it and had been interested then we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. It's clear that the person who posted was out of line on this occasion. I'm with Demon Hunter - if you want an author you respect to give you advice then e:mail him/her or write to them. Hi-jacking them at the end f their working day is a pretty mean thing to do.

I think writers have to be aware of the dangers of theft and should just take reasonable common-sense precautions to protect themselves.

I'm speaking about finished MSs here - in the ideas department I think everyone's take on the same subject will be different so that's not such an issue.

Be wise.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Jason Evans on this, and I think it's why it's not standard in publishing. The idea is nothing. Every possible plot has been done infinitum prior to any of our arrivals on the planet. It's the execution that matters in writing.

There have been lawsuits by writers about idea theft. One I can remember offhand was a children's writer who tried to sue JK Rowling, saying she stole bits of her book. But that author's sole case rested on the fact that they used the same made up word - I think it was 'muggle', and they had different meanings in the two books... oh, and that authors book was a small picture book and in no way related to the HP series...

I think ideas are out there in the atmosphere and multiple writers will pick out the same ones... it's the characters they come up with and the fleshing out of the story, it's their ability to tell the story and make their reader feel it that counts.

I did hear that Trident makes you sign such a thing, but I think they also represent screenplay and it may be that they've just made it protocal with all of their projects.

As far as the author in question, and I'm familiar with the blue boards but didn't see this one, it might not have anything to do with legality... she was at a conference to meet other authors and, presumably talk about her career and books... she was under no obligation to work with stray authors on their projects... and I wonder how many would be authors have come up to her or emailed wanting that type of favor. I mean, think of it from her perspective... all these people who want to be your friend because they think you can do something for them. I think the aspiring writer was out of line, not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Good comments everyone. And just to clarify - I am talking about ideas of completed manuscripts. And even then I completely agree that it is the execution of the idea that is important - and of course copyrightable. The idea itself is not.

But theft does happen - and more often than people think. Published authors have been caught lifting language verbatem from other publications. Robert Bausch's book Almighty Me, which was the basis for the film Bruce Almighty, was never credited in the film as the original source material. The execution of his concept was translated differently on the film, but given that the producers had access to the book (it was optioned by Disney who eventually released the movie) how could they not credit Bausch's book?

But that is exactly the gray area we fall into with the laws as they stand. If someone lifts passages of writing from another author - that is clear cut plagiarism and theft. But if a reader reads Charlotte's Web and decides to write a book about a spider that weaves words to save the life of a chicken, it is not copyright infringement because an idea is not copyrightable? Seems a bit problematic to me.

But then I can see the other side of the equation. Sixth Sense and A Stir of Echoes both came out the same year - both had very similar ideas and yet look how different the execution was.

Anyway, I see both sides. I just find this a fascinating issue.

Anonymous said...

Aside from the already commented-upon ideas of idea-stealing and "I'm your biggest fan!!" behavior, I'm curious.

Isn't this Big Fan asking the famous author to do a service that would otherwise have to be paid for?

I can't imagine what fame must be like. It would drive me nuts.

Imagine if you were Simon Cowell and people were always coming up to you in public and breaking out into (wretched) song. Yikes!

I'm sure he has no problem telling them off, but still. It would get old.

Anonymous said...

When I went to my first ever conference at the start of last month, on the first evening I ran into a very respected Big Name Author. Even though I was terrified of coming across as a demented stalker, and I'm a generally shy person, I walked up to Big Name Author and introduced myself. I told him I had a book coming out next year, and asked would he consider reading it for a blurb.

I fully expected Big Name Author to politely decline, but to my surprise he said no problem and gave me the address to send it to. Now, I had a head start in this instance in that it was a book with a publishing deal behind it, and I already had a blurb from Another Big Name Author. But even so, Big Name Author was friendly, open, and approachable.

As the weekend went on, I found myself in the company of various writers with well-established careers, and I found them all incredibly welcoming and friendly. Because of this experience, I'm a little surprised to hear of an author being stand-offish. Again, perhaps having a deal gets you into the club, so to speak, but really, I've never found writers to be anything other than supportive of one another.

As for the whole stealing ideas thing - I know it happens, but doesn't it seem an awful lot of work when you could just come up with something of your own?

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting issue. I can definitely see both sides. Of course you'd want to share your love of writing and ideas with a favorite author...But I can see the other side of the coin too.
This is my first visit here, Ello. Love your page layout, it is beautiful!

Anonymous said...

I ditto Jason and Merry. It truly is in the execution...

And I love the Blue Boards. I keep saying to myself that I want to spend more time there. It's a terrific support system for children's book writers.

Anonymous said...

I've learned the hard way that pitches often don't sound to others, even other authors, the way they do to me. When it's your idea you can see all the groovy parts, but when it's not. Another point: people sometimes take the opportunity when hearing an idea to play devil's advocate whether asked to or not.

Anonymous said...

I work in a law firm by day and write at night - mhawhaha - so, litigiousness is where I see the job security ;-)

But seriously I just GUSH about everything, my kids, my dog, my writing... people are rarely put off by it - at least as far as I can tell

Anonymous said...

A lot of authors, too, just aren't very much social butterflies and may have been trying to be nice but lacked the social skills. It's happened to me.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so here's my two cents - the simple reality is that you and I can have the same idea BUT how you and I develop that idea, how we write the story will be entirely different. The simple reality is there are very few "new" ideas, only old ones constantly rehashed in new forms. I think everyone is inclined to get a little "over excited" about this business of "stealing" ideas.
You just have to think about trends - what, did everyone go around stealing ideas - or, did the great collective subconscious simply generate the same ideas in everyone at more or less the same time.

Anonymous said...

I can understand both sides too. I'm afraid that I'm more on the side of the published author, though. How tiresome to have people approaching you all the time with their own ideas. This strikes me as the sort of thing a somewhat inexperienced writer might do -- or rather, a writer who had not yet met a lot of other writers. But I wasn't there, and it might have been the the published author WAS rude. We're all human.

As for others stealing ideas, how sad. Surely there are enough to go around? Surely we don't have to jealously guard every story premise we think up? But I'd rather bandy about my ideas freely than worry about someone stealing them.

Anonymous said...

I meant to add that approaching a published author with my own idea is absolutely the sort of thing I might have done before my endless stream of rejections. Thank God I never did this; I'd be far too timorous now.

Anonymous said...

i hate gushers... sure, they may have good, even great ideas, but please, keep them to yourself til the ms is complete

and demon hunter said it well, too :)

Anonymous said...

I don't think it matters so much that ideas aren't copyrightable and it's all in the execution, etc. That's all very true, but doesn't really help you if someone pays a lawyer enough to send you threatening letters anyway, which you have to pay your own lawyer to fight, or when the other writer starts posting their side of the story all over the internet about how you "stole" their story, with timelines and excerpts from the manuscript they showed you and whatever all else. Even if you did nothing wrong, it takes time and effort and aggravation to fight all that crap. I can't really blame writers who just don't want to go there, even if it makes them come across as abrupt or rude to some of their fans. :/


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