What if Someone Steals Your Idea?
By Jacob Krueger
Rule #3: Be Careful Who You Pitch To
Check out 100 Rules And How To Break Them for more tips.
It’s a constant fear among young writers: finally coming up with that million dollar idea, only to have it stolen by some mustache twirling producer, some back-stabbing friend, or even worse, some untalented hack of a writer. For this reason, scores of writers hide away their best ideas, terrified to share them with anyone for fear of losing them. So, let me reassure you.
You don’t have to worry about anybody stealing your idea. Because somewhere out there in the wild world of screenwriting, somebody already has.
No, they didn’t sneak into your laptop while you were away and spirit off your precious Final Draft files. In fact, most likely, they’ve never even met you, or talked about your idea with you or anyone you know. But if you’ve got an idea, there’s a good chance that there are at least 50 scripts with the same idea already circulating around Hollywood.
Who Invented Darwinism?
You probably haven’t heard of him, but during the same 20 years that Darwin was scribbling away on his revolutionary (and as-yet unpublished) Origin of Species, a guy named Alfred Russell Wallace was coming to the exact same conclusion. Never imagining that he and the great Charles Darwin could be working on the exact same project, Wallace sent his short paper on the subject to Darwin, whom he’d never met, begging the famous scientist for some feedback before he sent it to the publisher!
Imagine Darwin’s horror at receiving Wallace’s paper—and you’ll understand why producers ask you to sign such insane legal contracts before they agree to read your work. There’s a good chance that somewhere out there, somebody else is already working on exactly the same project you are.
Ideas are a dime a dozen. But a great script is not.
When Darwin rushed his Origin of Species to the presses after reading Wallace’s paper, Wallace could easily have imagined that Darwin had stolen his idea. But Wallace had the exact opposite reaction. He and Darwin became good friends, and ultimately, Wallace would claim that his greatest scientific achievement had been prompting Darwin to finally publish his groundbreaking manuscript.
Wallace understood that it wasn’t the idea of Origin of Species that changed the course of science forever. It was the execution of that idea in a way that captured the attention of everyone who read it. Similarly, it’s not the idea of your screenplay that’s going to make it sell. It’s the execution of that idea in a way that captures the essence of that idea, and translates it in a way that captures the audience’s attention.
All Writers Steal. And You Should Too.
Darwin and Wallace were not the first scientists to muse about evolution, nor was Shakespeare the completely original inventor of all his plays. Romeo and Juliet was stolen from the Roman myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. Hamlet is just an update of an older play called The Ur-Hamlet. The Big Lebowski steals unabashedly from The Big Sleep. And its main characters are not so loosely based on a couple of real life guys who were friends with the Coen Brothers. And remember that great truck chase scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark? It’s stolen from an old movie called Stagecoach.
Great writers steal liberally from everyone and everything around them: people, places, history, events, novels, plays, poems, songs, art, and yes, even other screenplays. They take these elements, draw upon them for inspiration, change, adapt, and repurpose them for their own writing, and in this way build upon the work of all the great writers who have gone before them. Though they may have been inspired by the same sources, Romeo and Juliet is not Pyramus and Thisbe. Hamlet is not The Ur-Hamlet. The Big Lebowski is nothing like The Big Sleep. And Raiders of the Lost Ark could never be confused for Stagecoach. That’s because no matter how similar the ideas they start with may be, it’s almost impossible for two writers to write the exact same script.
No One Can Write Your Script But You.
Translating an idea into screenplay form is intensely personal work, requiring thousands of intuitive creative decisions at every turn. And no two writers will ever make those decisions in the same way. Even if another writer were to steal, stumble upon, or be gifted by the screenwriting gods with the exact same “million-dollar idea” that you are currently working on, the chances of them writing a script that’s anything like the one you’ve created are extraordinarily slim.
So stop protecting your writing. If someone thinks they can write your movie better than you can, tell them to go for it! And then go out and steal some good inspiration for yourself.
Why Darwin Almost Got Scooped.
Despite his 20 years of work on the subject, his fame and his reputation in the industry, Darwin was so afraid to go out and pitch his revolutionary idea that he almost got beaten to the punch. This is the same mistake that so many young writers make, clinging so tenaciously to their ideas that they never have a chance to share them with anyone. If you’re going to sell your idea, you’re going to have to pitch it. And if you want to figure out your script, you’re going to have to share your writing and see how other people respond. Take a class. Talk to your friends. Share your writing. Get the feedback you need.
My father used to tell me, you can’t catch a fish if your hook isn’t in the water. And the same thing is true for pitching. If you’ve got a great idea, then write the script, and start shouting about it to the world. Because that’s the only way you’re going to sell it.
The Difference Between Stealing and Stealing.
There’s a big difference between “stealing” someone’s idea and repurposing it for your own writing, and literally stealing somebody else’s script. It’s rare that an experienced producer will actually steal a script from a writer. Anyone who’s ever produced a movie knows it’s much cheaper and easier to pay you for your screenplay than to defend a plagiarism lawsuit. Nevertheless, the bad kind of stealing does happen occasionally, so there are steps you should take to protect yourself.
(please note that I am not a lawyer and the following does not constitute legal advice).
- Always register your script with the US Copyright Office before you send it to anyone.
- There is no such thing as a poor man’s copyright. You spent months or maybe years of your life writing the script. It’s worth paying the fee.
- Keep clear records of everyone you send your script to, so you can prove they had access. Email is great, because it provides an automatic record.
- Don’t send your script to the shady guy you met on Craigslist. Send it to real producers with established credits who know better than to rip you off.
- Remember that WGA registration does not protect your copyright. It only helps in case of a credit arbitration.
- Write the darn script! You can’t copyright your idea, but you can copyright the execution. So go out there and execute it in the way only you can. Start today!