Monday, December 18, 2006

Will They Steal My Idea? Unethical Writers and Editors

Many writers and would-be writers worry about someone stealing their work, or stealing their ideas. I always encourage the writers to not worry about such things, to concentrate on their work, instead.

Still, one can't ignore the possibility of theft of intellectual property completely, and I know that many of you are curious about how this stuff happens. So I'll relate here some of my experiences with certain unethical (or simply ignorant) scum of the Earth.

Note that my brushes with these matters were not as high-profile or dramatic as those involving J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown. There wasn't near as much money involved. But they serve to illustrate not only how theft can happen, but also how to deal with it.

On to cases ... my one verifiable instance of plagiarism involved someone lifting my work in big chunks and publishing it under someone else's name. That was a fairly straightforward incident; one had only to look at certain parts of the works involved to see the plagiarism. The problem was resolved by my publisher's attorneys contacting the offending publisher, after which the latter pulped thousands of copies of the offending work.

More subtle were certain cases of someone taking an idea and running with it. Before you start wondering whether you should have kept quiet about your idea for novel that resembles a certain film now showing, let me explain what I mean by an "idea." Or, what I don't mean. By "idea," I don't mean, "I have an idea about this evil galactic empire that existed long ago and the only person who can stop the spread of evil is a young man who has no idea of his heritage, special powers, and destiny ..."

This particular idea, which you'll recognize as "Star Wars," was the foundation for scores of novels and short stories published long before George Lucas was born.

It is a plot situation, not a firm idea or story. As such, it is not copyrightable, and not protected by law. Specific works, in their content and very order of words are what copyright protects. So you are free to write a novel about an evil galactic empire whose only salvation is a dispossessed, unaware prince. Just as anyone is free to write a novel about aliens destroying the Earth's economy with matter duplicators (the plot situation in my first novel, The Odysseus Solution, written with Dean Lambe).

Doing so is no more plagiarism than Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres (it's King Lear all over), West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), and Forbidden Planet (The Tempest). The same is true of Pygmalion-based tales such as My Fair Lady which in a way became Pretty Woman and bunch of novels and a television series. If plots were protectable from "theft," there would be only one locked-room mystery, only one time travel story, only one story about an African-American who commits justifiable homicide in Mississippi, and so forth.

What is protected is what you do with an idea. Thus, you can query a magazine editor about doing an article on the subject of garage bands in the Midwest, and the editor can turn you down and ask another writer to do an article on that subject--with impunity. Such action is ethically crummy and a ripoff, but there's nothing illegal about it. I've had it happen, and I'll be glad to tell you who did it--privately.

But if you write an article about garage bands in the Midwest, send it to the editor, get turned down, and then see the unique spin you gave the subject in the same magazine under someone else's name, you probably have cause for action. If your sentences or paragraphs are copied, you definitely have cause for action.

I've not had submitted articles stolen, nor short stories. Just about any magazine editor is glad to buy what you write, and credit you, so as to get more of your work. But I have had book ideas--and more--stolen.

The first time this happened, a manager at a publishing house asked me to submit a book proposal on a certain subject to a specific editor, which I did. After waiting five weeks I telephoned the editor to ask about the proposal. Yes, the editor had received the proposal, and "... I folded it in with some other proposals on the same subject to give to another writer who will be writing the book."

WHAT? Hold everything!

My stomach lurched. Invectives and vulgarities rushed to the tip of my tongue, and I bit them back with an effort.

"You can't do that!" I said instead. "I was asked to submit the proposal on the understanding that I would write the book."

"Well," came the reply, "isn't that how everybody does it? Just take the best of all the material to create the book?"

Yeah, sure, lady! And when I need some lunch money I'll just go through your pocketbook, and take your ATM card for later.

"No, that is not how everybody does it." Some of the invective spewed forth at that point; I'll leave that to your imagination. I later learned that this was the editor's first job in publishing (no surprise). I suppose the editor thought I was doing this for fun. Or maybe the publisher thought they could just steal from anyone with impunity.

I contacted the president of the company, who gave me an apology and a few hundred bucks. But never again will I submit anything to that company.

A couple of years later I was asked to submit a proposal for a book to a publisher with whom I'd worked in the past. This was an outfit I trusted. As with the incident just described, I waited a few weeks, then telephoned to inquire as to the status of the book. "Oh," said editor B, "we contracted for that book four months ago."

What madness is this? "Then why solicit a proposal from me?" I demanded. My shoulders were hunched. My right hand clenched the phone so strongly that it began to ache. "Why ask me for a proposal when you had someone signed to write the book?"

"Well, my boss said to ask you."

I called the boss, editor B, who declared that he didn't know the book had already been signed when he told editor A to solicit the proposal. A blatant lie; the other author was well into the project, and there was no way editor A could not have known about the book because he had to approve the contract. The only questions was whether both editors thought it was a good idea to "help out" the author by taking my ideas, and if the author was in on it.

I managed to raise enough fuss with management to get one of these jerks fired, and was given a tiny financial compensation. None of this made up for the loss of time and effort on my part. (Editor B doubtless went on to pull unethical stunts on other writers.) And then there were the anticipated book credit and earnings. I suppose I might have brought suit over that one, but I was too busy writing to bother. And, even though I'd won civil suits in the past, I wasn't anxious to get into another one.

Needless to say, this is another publisher I avoid and warn others away from.

So, yes: plagiarism happens, and ideas are stolen. And the best way to deal with them, short of threatening suit, is to go over the offender's head.

But when you consider that I've had so few incidents in a career that includes publishing over three dozen books and 1,000 magazine pieces, you can see that they are the exception rather than the rule.

Still, the low probability doesn't make such events any less disturbing.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks
E-mail to: Mike [insert the "at" sign here]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why don't you name names? As you probably know, it's not libel if it's true. I see no reason for you to protect these people. You should warn fellow writers which publishers to avoid. Honestly. You really should name names. You're kind of a punk not to.

In fact, if it were me I would have launched a campaign against them in the media. You're a decent writer. You could have written a few hot, angry press releases to publish in local newspapers. Or you could have pulled some kind of publicity stunt outside their offices. Journalists love conflict, and this would have made a good story.

If these publishers have behaved so horribly that you've vowed never to do business with them again, then WHY, exactly, are you protecting them? Very strange.