I’m not sure why, but there seems to be a pervasive fear among the pre-published that their creative work will be stolen before they finish writing it. I hear this at my writing retreats almost every time. “What if someone steals my idea?” or “I don’t want to share my big plot twist because someone might copy it.” I try to comfort them, explaining that this really doesn’t happen in the book world—but they are rarely assuaged. I don’t know if this is the normal anxiety of the creative, or abnormal egoism suggesting their concept is so brilliant anyone could have a bestseller if they just heard a whisper of the central idea. Let me try to set the record straight and, I hope, put some minds to rest.
You Can’t Protect Ideas. Everyone knows the primary protection for written work is the copyright—but you can’t copyright ideas. Only written work. Until you’ve written it down, there’s nothing to protect (and even then, you’re protecting your arrangement of words, not the ideas underlying them). Arthur C. Clarke once famously came up with the idea of communication satellites and tried to patent it—without success. You can’t patent an idea. You need an actual invention. Same thing with copyright. You can’t copyright an idea. Only a piece of writing.
The Myth of Bestselling Ideas. Perhaps you think your concept is so unique anyone could make a success of it. The history of literature suggests otherwise. Granted, there is a lot of talk in New York publishing houses about “high concept”—a clever juxtaposition of popular tropes, or perhaps a reversal of norms, so unique that a brief description of the premise creates interest in the book. To be sure, a good tagline can help generate interest. But at the end of the day, the only thing that can make a book a success is good, immersive writing. Typically, many books can and will be written on the same general concept. The one that emerges with the best sales is not necessarily the first one. The most successful book will be the best one. Something some other writer cobbled together in a hurry is not going to steal your thunder.
Bottom line—even with so-called high concept novels, it is rarely the idea that makes the book a success. It’s the quality of the writing. The best way to protect your idea will be to work hard, write every day, produce a high-quality novel employing your idea—and get it into print. So share your work with colleagues, beta readers, agents, and editors, and stop worrying about it.
Do I Need a Copyright? Copyright is not necessary to protect your work. Your writing is automatically protected the moment you write it down. You obtain a formal copyright (which you can do online—www.copyright.gov) to create proof in the event ownership should be challenged. In other words, you’re not creating a copyright, you’re proving it was already in existence on a date certain.
Is it worth it? If it gives you peace of mind, sure. But the truth is, this will only be relevant in the extremely unlikely event that someone steals this unpublished work by an unknown writer, publishes it, and makes money off it. What are the chances of that happening?
Public Domain. Are you concerned that your work might accidentally slip into the public domain if you don’t protect it? Perhaps you’ve read about moviemakers who lost their rights because they didn’t guard them zealously. That doesn’t happen to books. In our world, work is copyrighted for the life of the author PLUS seventy years—long enough to protect you and a generation or two of your heirs. The only way your work can slip into the public arena is if you purposefully choose to make available to one and all—say, through the Creative Commons license, or some similar program by which authors deliberately make their work available and reproducible by the public. Even if you do that, though, you still retain the copyright. It’s no different from signing a contract with a publishing house. You license the right to publish the book—but you do not give away your copyright.
I think some of this insecurity arises because we live in a world where moves and tv shows get more media attention than books (which is so wrong, but don’t get me started). You hear stories out of Hollywood about people stealing ideas and being sued because someone alleges they stole an idea. This happens in large part because these media projects are by nature collaborative. Many people are involved in the production of a film, including, typically, the writing of the screenplay. Over the course of multiple drafts of multiple screenplays, some ideas may be retained, but not everyone’s name will appear in the final credits (much less on a check). So lawsuits happen, but they are expensive and rarely successful. Unless you’re collaborating with hundreds of people on your book, you should able to avoid this problem.
What About eBook Piracy? You may have read about people who have created self-pubbed eBooks on Amazon by duplicating the work of other writers, in whole or in part. This sadly is happening—but it’s not the idea being stolen, it’s the entire book or large portions of it. Amazon will pull a pirated book—when this is brought to their attention. Most of these people are trying to make some quick money before they’re caught. It’s sad that people like this exist in the world, but there’s nothing new about unscrupulously losers trying to rip off artists. If you’ve been listening to my podcast (and if not, why aren’t you?), you’ve heard me praise Nora Roberts, who has taken action against one such South American author. She realizes that not every writer has the financial wherewithal to fight this fight—so she will. She’s a hero in our own time.
The Importance of Exposure. One last thought—it’s just possible that unrestrained distribution of your work, or some of it, might be to your benefit. You’re probably aware that some people are giving away eBooks, making them available for free—to generate interest in their work. Paulo Coelho says he pirates his own work to gain exposure—and it works. People like Anna Todd, the author of After (now a major film), have made their work available free of charge on Wattpad to generate a following, and that exposure has led to six-digit contracts with established publishing houses. Andy Weir famously posted The Martian on his webpage, chapter-by-chapter, getting feedback that helped him make that book a runaway success.
Here are my Final Thoughts: I’m glad you have confidence in your ideas and your work. That’s a good sign. But the best thing you can do now is stop worrying about bogeymen in the closet and focus on finishing your book. Make it the best book you can, attend a conference to learn how to survive in the book world, and get your work into print. Become the success story you want—and then you’ll never have to worry about insubstantial specters again. Because you’ll be too busy worrying about what to write next.