Are You Worried Your Ideas or Work Will Be Stolen?

I recently received the following question from working writer Shannon Traphagen:

I have been fervently working on my novel (I am 5 chapters into writing it) and feel I have a platform like no other. My protagonist and antagonist are strong, and I feel it’s a fictional story that’s never really been done before. I’m very excited about it. I recently read a column on blogging successfully where you made reference to Kristen Lamb and her articles on it. The advice is great, but my question is this:

Because my book isn’t finished and I’m a new writer, I’m worried that the ideas I write about in my blog pertaining to my book could be ripped off. How do I safely write about some of my interests from the book, based on the extensive research I do, without having someone catch on to what my book is about?

Only two people have actually seen my book to date (with great feedback) and I never talk about the content of it to anyone. I’m really protective about it. Because it’s not finished I’m not sure how to go about this. Can you offer any advice on this?

First, a disclaimer

I am not an attorney nor do I have any special experience in intellectual property law. Legal professionals are likely to offer a different view than I do. However, I think we all know that asking a lawyer for advice can overcomplicate a situation. I’ve heard lawyers speak at writing conferences on copyright, and everyone ends up paranoid and frightened in the space of an hour.

Many warnings are unnecessary and counterproductive. My goal is to make things simple and give you information based on the actual likelihood something “bad” will happen to you.

The following advice is directed toward writers of prose and poetry. If you are a scriptwriter or playwright, look elsewhere for advice; it’s a different world for you.

I’ll break this down in 3 ways:

  1. Protecting your ideas
  2. Protecting your unpublished writing
  3. Protecting your published writing

The next time you hear a writer say, “I’m worried about my work being stolen,” please send them a link to this post!

1. Protecting your ideas

It is not possible under current U.S. law to copyright or protect an idea. (You also cannot copyright a title.) So, how much precaution should you take to keep your ideas secret?

Very little. I guarantee that others have similar ideas; you see it happen all the time in the business. Chalk it up to cultural zeitgeist. While I don’t advocate advertising your idea far and yon, or putting flashing lights around it on your blog, the chances that an agent, editor, critique partner, or stranger will:

(a) steal your idea

(b) execute your idea better than you

(c) AND be able to sell it

… are next to zero. It is not worth worrying about. Share your work with trusted advisers, send it to agents/editors for consideration, and talk about aspects of it on your blog. No problem. Unless you are known in the industry for coming up with million-dollar high concepts, it’s not likely you’ll experience idea theft.

Also, I love Jeanne Bowerman‘s take on this fear: Sure, someone can steal your idea, but they can’t possibly execute it or interpret it in the same way you can. No one can be you. That is your best protection of all.

2. Protecting your unpublished writing

Your work doesn’t need to be formally published to be protected, and you do not have to display the copyright symbol on your manuscript to have it protected. (One of the reasons there is so much confusion surrounding this issue is that the law changed in the 1970s.)

Since your work is copyrighted from the moment you create it, the existence or validity of your copyright will not be affected if you don’t register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. In fact, you can register the work after you find infringement and still be afforded all the protections as if you had registered it earlier.

That said, let’s go down the series of events that must happen for a lawsuit against an infringer to make sense:

(a) Someone must steal your work

(b) Someone must develop and package the work (or make it desirable for someone to pay for it)

(c) Readers have to find it and pay for it

(d) Meanwhile the person who did the stealing needs to keep a low-enough profile that the infringement is not detected while still making enough money to make it worth his time

Most people don’t view unpublished writings (or writers) as an untapped gold mine. It’s a lot of hard work to profit from a piece of writing (especially writing from an unknown, unproven writer)—isn’t it?

3. Protecting your published writing

This is where we enter into philosophical debate. Many believe that obscurity is a greater threat than piracy. I tend to agree. Piracy is more likely to hurt authors who are famous, rather than the unknown authors.

However, even bestselling authors have experimented with giving their work away for free—even enabling piracy!—and have claimed to profit even more due to the marketing and publicity effect. See Paulo Coelho as a shining example.

There is one area of theft and wrongdoing that is frustrating: People who create and sell e-books on Amazon by duplicating or repurposing other people’s content, or using public domain work. You can read about this phenomenon here. But Amazon is starting to crack down, and I’m confident sheer computing power will be used to shut down infringers.

Other notes

  • Your work cannot “accidentally fall” into the public domain. Published work does not enter into public domain until 70 years AFTER the author’s death, unless you have licensed it under another framework, e.g., Creative Commons (see below).
  • Selling various rights to your work doesn’t affect your ownership of the copyright. Various rights are all part of your copyright, but selling them in no way diminishes your ownership of the actual work. The only way you can give up copyright entirely is if you sign a contract or agreement that stipulates it is a “work for hire,” or otherwise purposefully license your work under a different framework.

A final word

I’m a fan of Creative Commons. What is it? Here’s a brief description:

The idea of universal access to research, education, and culture is made possible by the Internet, but our legal and social systems don’t always allow that idea to be realized. Copyright was created long before the emergence of the Internet, and can make it hard to legally perform actions we take for granted on the network: copy, paste, edit source, and post to the Web. The default setting of copyright law requires all of these actions to have explicit permission, granted in advance, whether you’re an artist, teacher, scientist, librarian, policymaker, or just a regular user. To achieve the vision of universal access, someone needed to provide a free, public, and standardized infrastructure that creates a balance between the reality of the Internet and the reality of copyright laws. That someone is Creative Commons.

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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
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  1. You can’t protect ideas.  Mainly because there are no new ideas.  Also, people considering the same subject matter, will often come up with very similar ideas.  I explored this issue when Lost first came out and I found 16 exact scenes in the first season in my first Atlantis novel.  But I also had to consider how many total scenes were in the season.

    Also, two people with the exact same idea will write two very different books.

    • I appreciate reading this. NBC just came out with a show that shares a lot of fundamental pieces with the book I’m writing – pieces that I haven’t seen in fiction before. Before I put on my tinfoil hat and started yelling that gmail sold NBC my manuscript, I started looking around and found this. Two writers will inevitably execute an idea differently.

  2. Terrific topic, and terrific answer. I’ve lost count of the number of times friends who have been dabbling with a novel say to me ‘If I send it to an agent or publisher, will it be stolen?’

    I say to them: ‘How long did it take you to make your idea into the manuscript you have in front of you? Years? How many extra ideas did you have to add? How much of your life – which isn’t the same as anybody else’s – went into the experiments you did with the story, let alone what you turned out with?’ Novels are complex enough to be very hard to copy from even an outline.

    Unfortunately I have also experienced the flipside. My husband took a high-concept idea to a commissioning editor at a TV company, who then went freelance and sold it back to the TV company a few months later. But because the editor hadn’t had the idea himself and didn’t know how to make it work, it bombed.

    • Totally right! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I’ve heard similar stories about the scriptwriting world. Ideas work more like currency there, but as you point out (and I think this is common), someone else’s execution of the idea often falls short.

      • I think you guys are spot on. Ideas are one thing, execution is quite another 😉 Or why would there be so many bakeries, so many clothing stores, so many shoe shops?!

  3. Right on Jane. I’ve seen lawyers freak everybody out at a conference to no good end. I do a lot of business writing, and that is where I see a lot of content theft. When I go to edit some copy on a client’s website, I find that it’s been ripped straight off Wiki How-To or another one of those sites. I don’t see or read about a lot of fiction/nonfiction book theft. I think nonfiction bloggers who have expertise and a ton of readers are good candidates for theft, but otherwise, I don’t see it being a big issue. 

    • YES! That link I embedded to the Amazon content-farm craziness is right in line with what you’re saying. It’s like the dirty secret of the e-publishing industry; so few people are talking about it …

      I admire some high-profile bloggers, e.g., Leo Babauta, who says, “Go ahead, take it all if you want. It’s free to all to repurpose and profit from. You don’t even have to give me credit, but I hope you do.” His philosophy is worth reading:

      He believes in the end he will see a return, or that a greater good will be served—that releasing our grip and fear about our ownership of content is for the best. I think it’s a good mindset to embrace if you can feel comfortable it’s not going to result in living in a van down by the river.

      • “living in a van down by the river” — that Motivational Speaker sketch was my favorite of Chris Farley’s. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. If someone’s really worried about their material being stolen, there’s a way to watch for it. Google has a tool called Google Alerts ( that will send you an e-mail whenever a search term you’ve entered appears on the web, with a link to the location. For a writer, the term should be long enough to likely be unique: a full sentence, say, rather than just a word or two. If you’ve chosen the search term well, there should be few or no false-positive hits. Teachers use a tool like this all the time to see if their students are plagiarizing material or turning in ghost-written term papers.

  5. This is not the same as stealing fiction, but a year ago, someone who attended one of my workshops wrote a blog post about it that shared every point I made, bullet by bullet, as well as my handouts, word for word. A little birdie reported it to me. I contacted the conference coordinator, and she in turn asked the blogger to take it down. She did. She was a new writer and thought she was being complimentary. It drove me a little crazy at the time, but I wonder how much control I can exert over material I present to a public audience?

    • Ramona, you’ve brought up a facet of this issue that’s rather fascinating. Anything we present/say in public is often considered fair game for someone to report on for an online audience. If you don’t like this kind of coverage, then I recommend stating at the beginning of your session, “Please no recordings or recaps without my permission.”

      Generally, bloggers are far more sensitive than the one you encountered. E.g., they ask for permission especially before posting handouts or recordings, since such things are protected under copyright/licensing, too!

      As for me (someone who speaks frequently!), I invite people to tweet, blog, or otherwise share what I present. I believe I reach an audience I wouldn’t otherwise, and take such coverage as complimentary, rather than as theft. I still think the value of what I do is retained; it’s a far different proposition to read something about a workshop than experience it firsthand.

      • I agree, Jane. I’ve given lots of presentations along with loads of material when I lived abroad. I loved people to use what I gave them and share it because then people came looking for me when they wanted a speaker on my subjects or my written content.

        I must say, though, depending on which countries, my material has been found verbatim out there claimed by others. This is disappointing, but I just create more, and anyway, they can’t deliver what’s a part of me and my experiences.

        • Indeed! I think that’s the healthiest attitude to take. Focusing your energy on the experience your provide (and creating new experiences) feels better than calling out others on appropriating your ideas/content.

  6. This post is fantastic, it clarifies many probabilities.  Last Saturday I was at a writers’ group and shared a short story.  The morning after I took my copies to look at the notes others had sscribbled and realized that a copy was missing out of five.  No one asked to keep a copy.  I’m unpublished therefore felt a mixture of distaste from the sneaky gesture but also felt complimented that my MS was considered worth stealing. 

  7. Thank you for putting this so clearly in a way that puts a writer’s heart at ease.  It’s nice to live in a time when we dont’t have to scramble to copyright our work.  I love what you said about how piracy only HELPS an unknown writer, not the reverse. 

  8. Thanks for the very informative post. I agree on virtually all of it. However, protecting published work IS important. I am about to publish a book with a very catchy title and it was suggested to me to trademark the phrase. I wonder if you have any advice on trademarking titles?

    • Afraid it’s not possible, at least not for a single book. If you were using the same title across a series (or a series of products), maybe you could get a trademark. But right off the bat? No.

  9. Thanks for supplying so much common sense about a subject that mystifies so many people. It’s much needed! 

    I do wonder, though, if it’s correct to say that a work you register AFTER infringement can “still be afforded all the protections as if you had registered it earlier”. It’s true that registering after infringement does allow you to sue to recover actual damages. However, unless you register BEFORE infringement (or within 3 months of publication), you cannot sue for statutory damages or recover your legal fees. Statutory damages, of course, are much more valuable, since actual monetary damage is typically very small.   As I say, though, it’s a complex subject, and I may have something mixed up here!

    • Thanks, John! Certainly if you are publishing & distributing your work (and charging for it!), you ought to officially register for copyright. If traditionally published, your publisher does this on your behalf.

      I’m not an expert on the specifics you’re addressing, but bottom line for me is: Copyright lawsuits by unknown writers, over UNpublished writing, are rare, and for good reason. Unless you’re a prominent name (almost a brand), there will be a low-perceived value of the work, and the potential for recovery is usually small and not worth the effort. 

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  11. Nice article, Jane! I’m glad to see talk about this subject. As a copy editor of mostly books and magazines, I regularly hear amateur authors especially tell me they’re afraid of someone stealing their work. It is true that a lot of e-book material is stolen, rehashed, repurposed online, but good authors will spin their topic to attract their target market whether or not someone tries to steal their ideas, some of their content or otherwise. Don’t worry; just write is my advice.

  12. Thank you, Jane. Every time I hear authors getting precious about their work, I feel exactly the same. Anyone trying to steal a novel of mine would have to be crazy – I find it hard enough to sell them as it is and if someone manages to do it, I will rush around and hog the profits.

    I did have an accidental theft once.  I sent a collection of sexy short stories to a very well established author who was putting out an anthology. It was called Foreign Affairs and had a cover image of an attractive lady, shot from behind against a backdrop of tropical beach and coconut palms. 

    I did not get into the anthology, but a couple of years later found it had come out and was called Foreign Affairs and had a cover image of an attractive lady, shot from behind against a backdrop of tropical beach and coconut palms. The only differences were that my stories were better (!) and her cover lady was wearing more clothes.

    I emailed her, and it seems she had forgotten ever seeing my book, although I guess it might have sat in her mind. The duplication did not bother me; I probably sold more books because of it.

    • Fabulous story!

      I think it’s true that things do sit in our mind, and re-emerge without our even realizing we’ve seen them elsewhere. Fascinating phenomenon. There’s a video series called EVERYTHING IS A REMIX that plays with this idea. You might enjoy:

  13. I very much agree about few ideas are so unique no one has ever heard of them. Really, it’s all in the execution.  I’ve heard it said that you can find every plot in the Bible, and we’ve all just been retelling those same stories ever since.

    Nice blog. I found it from The Book Designer.


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  19. This article is not true of television where ideas are stolen often. It has even been admitted by the bbc that people “took others’ ideas, reshaped them and then used them as their own.” Theft goes on, believe me. People who tell you it doesn’t are trying to gloss over something which happens. It has happened to me – and I’ve had television successes too. There really needs to be a proper investigation into theft of peoples’ ideas and a way of taking action against the thieves – many of whom are actually insiders of the industry. Why do they do it? Because of money and because they have no conscience about what they are doing. They are just as bad as common thieves.

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  21. “Also, I love Jeanne Bowerman‘s take on this fear: Sure, someone can steal your idea, but they can’t possibly execute it or interpret it in the same way you can. No one can be you. That is your best protection of all.”

    This is the exact opposite of protection in my mind. My worst fear is that someone will steal my idea and fuck it up.
    I mean, the reason I googled about these worries is because there is no possible way a person could know all of the history and background I write before getting to an actual story. Therefore, they would take only a good chunk of it and add their own ideas to it and it would be disastrous for me.

    So how is the little piece I quoted supposed to be any consolation?

    • If there’s no possible way a person could know all of the history and background that you do, then why worry about it?

      Bottom line, you can’t protect an idea. To worry about it getting stolen is wasted energy. Focus on executing your idea, not protecting it.

  22. Thanks for the good information! People ask me this occasionally, knowing I have worked as an editor and writer. The truth is, most people’s writing is not worth stealing. :)

  23. I agree it’s rare and I think it’s more likely to happen if you are closely connected with people who might want to steal it. I’m a book publisher, and an author with a great idea for a book on a topical issue, containing people’s personal stories, came to me. I loved the idea and we started gathering stories. After a few months it went quiet, and when I saw her recently she said she had decided to delay it for a while. No problem. Then I discover a local annual writing festival has created exactly the same sort of book, and at least one of our original contributors is in it. I suspect the others will be too, and there is the definite possibility of idea theft given that some contributors were connected to organisers or those who know them, and it all suddenly going quiet. All knew the author. I feel annoyed, but I feel more sorry for the author because it was their idea and it seems to have been hijacked by this festival. It’s possible she had an inkling but was unsure about saying anything because what could we do? I don’t think they care as much about the topic as we do, it just made them look ‘cool’. You’re right about execution, too; our version would have kicked ass! I do believe in the greater good. But I also believe in karma 😉

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    • If you’re a creative writer (novels, nonfiction, essays, poetry, etc), you don’t need to officially register for copyright with the Copyright Office unless you plan to self-publish and/or sell your work.

      If you’re a scriptwriter/screenwriter, go read up on the WGA’s guidelines and recommendations.

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  29. Good info. However I do have a question. What if you queried an agent, were passed on, published you book through another publishing house and one of said agent’s popular novelist’s recent best-selling titles contains a synopsis almost identical to the one you pitched and subsequently published??

    • The short and practical answer: There is nothing to do in such a situation. It’s likely not related to the fact you queried the agent. Ideas float around the culture; chalk it up to the zeitgeist.

  30. Thanks Jane! Must admit, the title in question does seem like a good read, in a guilty-pleasure, smutty-erotica-novel kind of way. Kind of stinks that these type of novels are what is selling nowadays. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. I really do! I’m just missing seeing titles like Jane Eyre and Catcher in the Rye on the best-seller lists. It seems that if you don’t produce a novel with either a detective-taped bloody crime scene, hot throbbing man-sticks, dystopian societies or #24 in series whatchamacallit, you can kiss goodbye top 10 anything. Unless, of course, your last name ends in King, Coben, Koontz, Rowling, Flynn or Brown. Hmm, maybe I should change my name. Paula King does have a nice ring to it. All hail classic literary fiction, where ideas were unique and characters were truly complex. (And not just because of their secret red-room fetishes!)

  31. Hi Jane, does this apply to someone writing a true story? Should I be concern if I sent my story to a friend for editing? Or if someone has a copy of my first draft? Please advise. Thank you!

  32. Hi Jane, My question is how (and if) you should respond to a blog follower who is clearly stealing your blog ideas. Just let it go? I thought about commenting that “I was flattered that he was inspired by my piece” but I didn’t want to egg him on further. Any suggestions?

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