November 13, 2002
When You've Been Violated: What To Do When Someone Steals Your Ideas or Articles By Angela Hoy | printable version
"I queried a major magazine and included a list of interview sources. They rejected my idea but, one year later, they just published the article I pitched to them, and they used my sources!"
"I received a form rejection letter for a series of books I pitched to a large book publisher a couple of year ago. I just got back from Barnes and Noble and, guess what? That same publisher just launched a new series and used all my book ideas!"
We get these types of emails frequently at WritersWeekly.com. It's a disturbing trend and one that we should all keep in mind when pitching our ideas to the masses.
Unfortunately, you can patent new products, but you can't copyright or patent new ideas. Any magazine or book publisher can "steal" your idea and assign it to another writer. In fact, they can steal your idea and write the article or book themselves. As nasty as it sounds, it does happen. And, with so many writers on the market, editors and publishers would prefer to assign good ideas to their steady stable of freelancers rather than hire an unknown (you).
So, what's a writer to do?
WHEN AN EDITOR/PUBLISHER STEALS
If you have a really good idea, it might be prudent to write the article before pitching it. While I never recommend writing on spec, some ideas are just too good to pitch to potential thieves without some protection. We all know when we've written that one outstanding piece, or had that one idea that we just knew was going to sell. If the article is already complete, you have a better chance of selling the piece. If the piece is already complete, chances are they're not going to hire someone else to rewrite it. Second, if the article is already written and includes statements from all your sources, it will be much easier to prove they stole your material later if they use your sources for a different article. And don't forget to copyright it! So, while it's impossible to prove someone stole your idea, it's pretty easy to prove if someone rewrote the same article and used the same sources.
What can you do if someone steals your article or book idea? Unfortunately, not much. If you're not positive they stole your idea and can't prove it, spreading rumors about their alleged theft can get you into lots of legal trouble. If you're positive they stole your idea, article or book, you need to let them know you'll be telling the online writing community to watch out for them. If you alert enough of us about their unethical behavior, it could make a serious dent in the quality of the queries coming into their office.
WHEN A COLLEAGUE STEALS
When I wrote How to Publish and Promote Online with MJ Rose, we interviewed many industry insiders about ebooks and print-on-demand. After the book was complete, we sent copies of the ebook to all the contributors. Before we could blink, one of those contributors wrote a book that was so similar to ours that it made our stomachs turn. Yes, that person stole our idea, and had our entire book to use as a reference. What could we do? Nothing. But you can bet they got no favors or publicity from us after that stunt. And, whenever a member of the press mentioned that person was being interviewed for an article we were to appear in, we let them know what the idea thief did. More than one reporter told me they'd dropped them from their list of sources.
WHEN A FRIEND STEALS
Think your trusted friends won't steal from you? Think again. Just last week I found a new writing newsletter online that is so similar to WritersWeekly.com that I felt grossly violated. The sections are almost identical. It is published by someone who I thought was my friend. No, what they're doing isn't illegal. But, it is very unethical. Let's face it. If your friend were very successful at something would you launch a copycat publication? No, of course you wouldn't. Not only would it make you a louse, but it would also be really stupid, especially if your friend had been helping you promote your products to a list of 70,000 writers.
So, what can I do? Nothing. But, you can bet that person won't be getting any future favors from us. They more than bit the hand that was feeding them. They chopped the whole hand off and ran with it. This isn't the first time a "friend" has betrayed me and copied my books and ezine. Unfortunately, it probably won't be the last, and it could likely happen to you, too.
While the unethical behavior of idea thieves may be legal, you don't have to sit back and allow yourself to be violated. There are perfectly legal ways of dealing with idea thieves. I'm not a vengeful person, and I'm sure you aren't, either. But, if you sit back and let people violate you, they'll keep stealing from you and others until someone teaches them a hard-earned lesson.
Most people who must resort to stealing for a living don't stay in business long. (Just look at all the firms on our Warnings pages that stole from writers and then went out of business!). Their lack of creative skills prohibits them from succeeding in an industry where creativity is required for survival. The kindest souls are always blessed with the best creative sparks and they will always succeed while the idea thieves will ultimately fail.
Angela Hoy is the co-owner of Booklocker.com and WritersWeekly.com. WritersWeekly.com features new freelance jobs and paying markets for FREE via email every Wednesday. Booklocker.com publishes print on demand and electronic books and pays the highest royalties in the industry.