Someone Else’s Idea

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: May 17 2011

This question actually came in some time ago, but since I just did an interview with a student on business ethics, I thought it was an interesting time to answer.

Have you ever read a badly written query, plucked out the interesting idea or concept and given it to one of your clients for execution?

I have not. I do brainstorm ideas with my clients all the time. Sometimes they come to me with ideas and other times I bring ideas to them. That being said, I feel it would be unethical to send an idea to a client when it came from another writer, even though ideas can’t be copyrighted. In other words, while it’s not illegal, I don’t think it’s ethical.

Now, that being said, you might be surprised by how often the same idea shows up again and again. I think all authors think they have the most original idea and protect it carefully, but the truth is while the idea is very important, it’s the execution that really matters. Frequently I will receive a query for an idea a client is already working on, we’re in the process of selling, or we’ve just sold. I also receive queries with ideas for books that we’ve already published.


26 responses to “Someone Else’s Idea”

  1. I think this is the #1 fear of new writers and their relatives.

    I can't tell you how many times I've been warned to "protect" my ideas, only to horrify the person warning me with the notion that I actually DO send my work out to complete strangers and ask them to represent me without copyrighting it or mailing it to myself first.:-P

  2. Avatar Trisha says:

    My philosophy is, "Well, a thousand other people could already have written my idea…I just have to do it better!" haha

  3. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Interesting post.
    I recently had an idea for a book that had to do with a boy wizard and teenage blood-suckers. Gee, do think it would sell?
    If not, I have another idea about a southern plantation during a war, another about alien invasions and yet another about secret codes in famous paintings. So what do you think?
    They are my ideas and I think they can make the best seller list.
    Oh well, I'm back to working on my epic about the beginning of the world all the way up to Armageddon. Now that one is a page turner.

  4. Avatar Donna Lea Simpson says:

    I wrote a whole book once, and was fairly happy with it. It was a mystery, and prominent in it was a trail of keys, one leading to the other. I began to send it out to publishers.

    Then (at the time, many years ago) I read the latest Sue Grafton, only to find that a prominent part of the plot was – you guessed it – a trail of keys, one leading to the next, and so on. There were also other striking similarities.

    I stopped sending the book around; the Sue Grafton hadn't influenced me at all, but it sure would have looked derivative, to say the least!

  5. Ideas are a dime a dozen. I will say, however, that I was more than a little discouraged when I came across a writer who had written a novel so close to my current project, I was sure she had hijacked my brain. It took a lot for me to suck it up and continue writing. A lot. I decided it's not the idea, it's the execution.
    However, I agree, if I'd found this writers work and then started writing my story as a result, that would be terribly unethical.

  6. Avatar enewmeyer says:

    My sister has an annoying habit of comparing my storyline ideas to recent movies. "That sounds just like . . ." It's frustrating but does help me avoid the certain death of my current WIP.

  7. Avatar Jo Crosier says:

    What a great post. I think it's a great ethical question and hope most other agents and editors out there feel the same.
    It's no wonder that we come up with a lot of the same ideas because we all are influenced so heavily by our context – the shows and movies we watch, books we read, current events, etc.
    Trisha's right – we just have to do it better.

  8. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Funny, I was just thinking about this: years ago I was at a writer's workshop when a woman told me she had the best idea in the world for a fiction series, but was afraid to tell anyone for fear they would steal it. The idea? (drum roll) A story based on the Rapture!

    To this day she probably thinks I jogged right out and phoned Tim LaHaye.

    Something I always tell writers worried about this: "Your new idea is old."

  9. Avatar ryan field says:

    I've always been a big believer in the fact that it's more about how the idea is executed than the idea itself.

  10. Avatar Laila Knight says:

    Thank you for your code of ethics. I think ideas grow branches. It's not about an original idea but our take on it. Think of how many times the Little Red Riding Hood has been remade, and every single one has been different with the exception of the girl and the wolf. It's about creativity, what we can do with ductape.

  11. Avatar S.P. Bowers says:

    Out of curiosity have you ever come across a completely original idea? One you haven't seen in other queries?

  12. Avatar Malin says:

    This is exactly why I don't throw myself head first into ideas and plots (while reading or writing) – you're never the only one with that idea. Characters on the other hand… now, only a badly created character will be exactly like another character. There's no end to the richness of human nature.

  13. There was an article about this sort of thing in Writer's Digest recently. Two authors had never come into contact with each other, didn't share an agent or publisher, their books came out around the same time, and there were striking similarities, but each was a unique and fully-realized work. The article referenced that someone besides Alexander G Bell had applied for a patent on the telephone at the same time as he did, and other similar events.

    Ideas aren't isolated but the way they're executed can be and that's what makes for very unique stories revolving around the same themes or ideas.

    A very interesting conversation nonetheless. I think that derivation is one reason I took a break from writing. I was comparing myself too much and I needed to find me in my writing. By me, I mean that unique perspective I bring to ideas that may be common to many. Because that's what makes the book mine and only mine and not a derivation of someone else's work.

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Sadly, this happened to an unpublished writer friend, but because they're a "nobody" and the published author is a "somebody," what could they do?

    What about the situation between Jerry Seinfeld's wife and Missy Chase Lapine? Lapine shopped her book to HarperCollins, who ended up publishing Seinfeld's identical book…

    – Isolde

  15. Avatar Richard says:

    I know you folks are writers,i just thought id let you know if anyones interested in reading a post from a old order Mennonite woman named Jean on my blog. She from New York state and has a pretty interesting story to tell about being horse and buggy Mennonite. Please feel free to drop by the blog, thank you folks. Richard

  16. Avatar Stephsco says:

    What sucks is reading a synopsis of Spy Kids 4 (in theatres this summer!) and finding a key element from my WIP. I'm just going to pretend I never saw that and move along…

  17. Avatar RayMorgan says:

    Like Trisha said – I always try to think even if an idea has been done before, it won't be written the same way I would do it so I know I have to add my own twist to it in order to make it mine.

    Also, when I'm working on something, I'll try to avoid reading or watching anything that appears to contain similar themes so I won't be influenced. That said, I have written stuff before and then read or watched something and thought – that is so damn similar to a scene in my story but as long as I know I wrote the scene without influence, I'm happy.

  18. There's nothing new under the sun, and none of us are probably as original as we think. Even if an idea hasn't been published, someone's probably had the thought. And for those ideas that have been published, we just have to try to think of a new twist, write it better than anyone else could, and to a certain extent quit worrying about what everyone else is doing.

    That said, I appreciate your code of ethics!

  19. @Josin L. McQuein:

    This is my opinion, so please take it as such….

    I'm truly paranoid, so I do copyright my stuff before sending it out. It's not that expensive, and since you now can do it online (unlike the old days, when you had to fill out a form AND send in hard copy), it's pretty quick and easy.

    Regarding the mail-it-to-yourself method, I've heard of it, but ask yourself this: how hard would it be to mail yourself an unsealed envelope today, and then when the next Dan Brown novel comes out, copy it (changing a few details), stick a printed copy in the envelope and seal it? I imagine it's been tried and shot down in court.

    Just my $0.03

  20. To follow up my own comment…

    I don't copyright my material because I fear an agent or publisher will steal it. I'm (overly) worried that after I've published it, someone will come along and try to claim it as his own. So I want to prove the date that I wrote it.

  21. Bookends are very important for the person who enjoyed collecting and reading books. You can gained knowledge to share. Sharing ideas is great.

  22. The 'Poor Man's Copyright' – the process of mailing yourself a hard copy of your work isn't accepted as a proof of copyright in law. Technically it shows no proof of authorship, it just shows that you know your way around envelopes and stamps.

    Aristotle said there are only 7 great forms of plot in the world… Georges Polti stretched the list to 36. Neither really leave that much room for so many writers to all be creative and original without treading on each other's toes, proving that it's not the idea you have, it's what you do with it that matters.

  23. Hmmm. I wonder if e-mail would work as the new Poor Man's Copyright. After all, even if a nefarious person were to turn back the clock on his PC when creating the e-mail, it takes some real technical chops to alter the timestamps on all the hops along the way.

    Of course, I still defer to my first thought: if your IP is that important to you, spend $35 and copyright it.

    Just another $0.03

  24. Avatar Scarlett says:

    @Michael seese what if you are a kid and don't have that kind of money?(35 is a fortune to me)

  25. @ Scarlett:

    I can offer some ideas, but nothing that gives you ironclad protection for less than $35.

    1. We've already established that mailing your work to yourself in an envelope won't hold up.
    2. I speculated about emailing it to yourself. I don't know if it's ever been tried or not. (Perhaps if there are any lawyers in the crowd, one of them could chime in.) My OPINION is that it could hold some weight, since the timestamps on the header are hard to alter.
    3. That leaves us with coming up with $35 to copyright. One thing I have learned: you can "gang" copyright multiple works. In other words, if you have ten novels, novellas, short stories, and poems, rather than spend $350 for individual copyrights, you could put them in one document and copyright it as "The Collected Works Of Scarlett." I discovered this method years ago after spending about $500 (back when a copyright was $20) registering my first 25 songs. That sure saved me a ton of money going forward.

    I hope this helps. And though I can appreciate that one's financial situation can make $35 seem quite expensive, I'll repeat: if it's really important to you, find the money and protect it.

    My $0.03

  26. Avatar plumbing says:

    I think all writers wanted to prevent this from happening. Originality is very important and though it is not illegal it is also not right to copy someone else' idea.