I Would Swear People are Stealing My Ideas and Putting them on TV and the Movies!
Have you ever worried that by sending your manuscript to contests, various publications, theaters (if you’re a playwright), and even just colleagues you pretty much trust, you are exposing your ideas to theft? Has it occurred to you that anybody who reads your work, however honest they are, might, after a little while, forget they’d read it and start thinking it was their own idea, or, more likely, that bits and pieces of your ideas would show up in their work, unintentionally, or else they would talk about their supposedly “original” ideas to someone else who then lifted them? Do you know that there are people who are paid to read piles and piles of manuscripts, often referred to as “slush,” just to weed out all but a few that their employer might find of interest, and that those people are generally literary types, sometimes writers or wannabe writers themselves?
Have you ever inquired, say, of a workshop instructor, as to whether you should copyright your work, and if so, at what stage should you go ahead and do that?
Our ideas, as much as or more so than our words, are our stock in trade. Of course we want to protect them from theft, whether it’s intentional or not. So what is the practical approach to preventing our ideas from leaking into the outside before we’ve received credit for them?
Let me share some of my experiences. If nothing else, I have the advantage of a long-time point of view, as I’ve been calling myself a writer for over half a century.
Let’s look at these story elements:
a married couple
a newborn comes into their life
but it’s not your normal newborn
for starters, the woman is not the one who gives birth to it
it also doesn’t look like a baby
it starts growing at a very fast rate
it has to be kept hidden
there are some problems in this marriage, by the way
the man thinks he ought to kill this offspring but on the other hand it’s a great boon
this “baby” grows up and starts looking pretty sexy
whoa! it changes its gender
it seduces one of the “parents”
What story is this? Well, it could be the Jerry Stubblefield (that’s me) novel Homunculus, a “brilliantly described, excellently paced” [Electric City] “portrait of neurotic impulses made flesh that readers will not soon forget” [Booklist Magazine], which was published in early 2009 after over a decade of exposure in the publishing arena. Or it could be Splice, a 2009 CG enhanced sci-fi groaner filmed in Canada.
I keep envisioning some slush pile reader having drinks with a struggling screenwriter and slurring “Shay, I have a great story idea my frin’! Not sure where this came to me from. But iss about this weird baby that the wife doesn’t give birth to. Shee, what happens is it grows up and changes sex and has sex with its parent…” And the writer says “Y’know, buddy, thash not bad at all. Got any more details?” “Well, lessee, you want some problems in the marriage of course…” and so on.
Wow, is Jerry Stubblefield paranoid! Such unintentional plagiarism doesn’t really happen. It’s just a coincidence.
Well, maybe. Let’s look at another set of story elements:
title is Rock and Hard Place
set in a trailer park in Texas
revolves around the members of a rock band living in the trailer park
plot involves a love triangle
plot involves struggle to succeed as a rock band
plot involves financial pressures
And what is this piece? It could be the stage play Jerry Stubblefield wrote in the late 1970’s and shopped around Los Angeles with no luck, or it could be the schlocky television pilot for a comedy series that aired once in the early eighties and then disappeared – no series materialized. “Shay, man, here’s a great idea for you. You set this in a trailer park in Texas, shee…”
Rock and a Hard Place, the television pilot, came and went so fast that it was only by rather amazing coincidence that I even became aware of it. The title, admittedly too obvious a choice, caught my eye as I was perusing TV Guide one day, and the blurb after the title made my eyes widen. That’s my frickin’ title with my frickin’ story! I might have shrugged it off, but only a few years earlier, in the mid seventies… Well, let’s do yet another list of story elements:
title is Fire on the Mountain
the characters are an older man, a younger man, and a young, pretty woman
the three characters are isolated in a cabin on a mountainside
Fire on the Mountain (OK, again I grant you that was a pretty well-worn phrase even back then) could be a late seventies made-for-TV movie or it could be Jerry Stubblefield’s draft of the stage play which eventually developed into New Mexican Rainbow Fishing and played in New York, New Hampshire, and later North Carolina under the title Echo 4 Mi. But in the mid-seventies, it was shopped around Los Angeles with the title Fire on the Mountain. I never saw the TV movie, but the blurb in TV Guide gave me the information I just shared above.
So, the lines of coke are disappearing one at a time… “Dude, man, here’s what you do… put two men, one old and one young, plus a young, pretty woman in an isolated cabin on a mountainside. What else do you need, man? (sniff sniff) The sparks are bound to fly! Call it Fire on the Mountain ‘cause thass very dramatic sounding.”
I’ve heard many aspiring writers express concern about sending their work out and having it ripped off. Given my experiences, you might expect me now to issue dire warnings in that regard, but actually I don’t feel that I’ve been harmed.
First, it’s possible all of the above happened by coincidence, so there’s no point taking any action about it. Secondly, the productions that did look like they used my ideas were inept. While that would fit well in my imagined scenario of drinking/snorting no-talents skimming ideas out of slush piles, it also means that nobody would be likely to pay much attention to the resulting movies, TV shows or whatever.
Copyrighting your material, registering it with the Writers Guild of America, or otherwise laying some “legal” claim to what is already yours, does not address the concern. None of the similarities I noted between my work and work I later saw would win me a case in court, copyright or no copyright. Homunculus the same idea as Splice? Even with all those similarities, and the publication of the book prior to the release of the movie, I wouldn’t find plagiarism if I were a judge. No, the basic problem, at least for me, has been to get the ball rolling, stop taking ten years to get a novel published, or a play produced. Then my ideas, in the form of my manuscripts, wouldn’t be laying around for people to read, forget, then “rediscover” for themselves.
Getting the publishing or producing process into high gear has always been a problem for me. A writer needs to take the necessary time to write a novel or a play, but once it’s done, I think one would do well to get it on the road to publication/production right away rather than running it through a lot of readings, and sending it to friends and colleagues to read and comment on. Those martinis, lines of coke, or whatever somebody (not you) is loosening up with out on the coast or back in the city, are just not your helpers, and you shouldn’t have to worry about that.