Was Your Idea Stolen? Maybe

Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray both submitted patents for the telephone on the same day. Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin both conceived the theory of evolution around the same time.

Did they steal each other’s ideas? Was Darwin a plagiarist? No, of course not. They were part of a phenomenon called simultaneous discovery—the same idea appearing at the same time in different places (as detailed by Malcolm Gladwell in a 2008 New Yorker article). In fact, historians suggest it’s the rule, not the exception, that scientists and inventors can and will have the same idea, independently of one another, at the same time.

And yes, it happens with writers, too. We, the co-authors of this piece, are perfect examples. When our debut novels came out, we were two newly published writers who had never met. But it wasn’t long before readers began contacting us to point out that our books contain an uncomfortable amount of similarities, ranging from character names to a Midwestern setting to protagonists wrestling with issues that include their evangelical backgrounds and college choices.

Neither of us knew what to think or how to respond. We introduced ourselves via e-mail and began discussing our books. A quick review of timelines showed that one of us had already been in the final stages of her book’s production while the other had first celebrated her book’s release. We lived in different countries. We didn’t share a critique group, editor or agent. There was no way there had been any idea theft. And, though our books have a lot in common, they have a lot of differences, too.

For us, simultaneous discovery has been extremely positive: We’re now friends, and we’re talking about collaborating on future projects. (After all, we already think alike!) Yet all too often, writers see the synchronized emergence of ideas as a negative thing. They wonder: Is someone stealing their work? Should they quit their writing groups so nobody can get ahold of their ideas? Should they give up on their works-in-progress because something similar just hit the bookshelves?

First, remember that paranoia is not a healthy response. If and when you discover that someone else’s idea has happened to you, here are three key things to bear in mind:  

Recognize that the theft of words is different than the theft of ideas.
A lot of books contain story elements and character archetypes that are present in many, many other stories. If it’s all been done before, then half the fun can be in taking a well-known story or archetype in a whole new direction. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?

It isn’t the story idea you own; it’s how you express that idea on the page. And the specific words you use are what you copyright.

However, if you feel that someone has done more than write something similar to your work— that they have actually plagiarized your words—you do have recourse. Literary agent Larry Kirshbaum points out that many organizations exist to protect authors and inform them of their rights, including the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Preditors & Editors (pred-ed.com) and The Author’s Guild (which even offers media liability insurance).

Don’t panic if you spot an idea that’s similar to yours.
It’s just the nature of the beast, and agents and editors know it. “Trends in submissions happen all the time,” says Kristin Nelson, president of Nelson Literary Agency. She lists postapocalyptic settings, Greek mythology and bipolar characters as prevalent ideas she’s seeing right now.

One of her clients was recently frustrated when Rick Riordan’s Red Pyramid bore a striking similarity to her own middle-grade project (which she’d been working on for a year and a half). Nelson encouraged the client not to despair.

“I told her to not give up on it if she thought her take was wholly original and different from [Riordan’s],” she says. “After all, we have any number of magic users or vampires that are terrific and are not anything like Harry Potter or Twilight.” 

Author Tera Lynn Childs is OK with the fact that her book Forgive My Fins was one of several mermaid titles published in the past year—she started writing it four years ago, long before the trend erupted. In fact, she points out it’s nearly impossible to cash in on the latest bandwagon, even if you want to. “You can’t chase a trend, because by the time you catch it, it’s gone,” Childs says. “I wrote two chick-lit books when it was selling well, and now have two books that will never be published.”

If you do find yourself penning a story that seems to be part of a trend, locate the latest titles in the craze and read everything you can get your hands on. This is one of the best ways to help ensure your writing has a distinct voice, to keep your finger on the pulse of what your audience is reading, and to make sure you can articulate to an editor or agent what makes your book stand out.

Don’t let fear stop you.
Overreacting out of fear of idea theft can actually be counterproductive. Such misplaced fears can lead to writers avoiding critique groups, missing out on connections that might enrich their writing lives, and even feeling reluctant about submitting their work for consideration.

If you do find yourself riding a wave of shared ideas, be it vampires, dystopian fiction or psychics, try to look at it as a positive, not a negative. There may be marketing opportunities in binding together, such as joint blogs, shared signings or conference presentations. If a certain idea or concept is hot, it’s because there is a high reader demand—and, ultimately, that’s a good thing.

The benefits of being a part of a writing community far outweigh any risks. Because even if someone does take your idea, they can never take the unique way you will tell the story. And we can all take solace in that.

Want more legal advice? Consider:
Legal Issues Affecting Writers

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