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Monday, August 18, 2008

From the Mailbag

For this question, I turned to my mentor, colleague and business partner Dave Sparling for the answer because Dave always tells me how it is with total honesty (good idea on skipping the panda mascot, Dave. Note to self: zoos sensitive about surprise animal relocations).

Dear Rouge Wave:

Can I truly prevent my idea (or script, or treatment, etc.) from being stolen?
-Paranoid in Poughkeepsie

Dear Paranoid:

Sure: lock up the only copy of it in a fireproof safe, then never show or speak of it to another soul as long as you live.

Short of that, there's really not much you as a writer can do to ensure your brilliance won't be ripped off. If you want to make it as a writer, ideas (in script form, pitches, treatments, takes you generate for potential assignments) are your stock in trade. It's the exchange of these ideas that propels your career forward. So it's actually counter-productive to let fear of being ripped off impact the way you go about trying to advance your own cause. So instead of expending energy worrying about getting robbed, and going to excessive lengths to try to prevent something like that from happening, the odds of which, by the way, are extremely low to begin with, why not focus that energy on making your scripts even better?

This isn't to say that there aren't measures you can take to give yourself a leg up should someone unscrupulous actually rip you off. From copyrighting to registering your idea with the WGA, either in person or electronically through its online registry. Similar services like let you accomplish the same thing--prove that you can claim on such-and-such date that you authored said material. Should a dispute about authorship ever arise, you may be able to prevail in a legal battle, if you have taken these rudimentary steps. While there certainly is a deterrent factor involved here, the reality is that no measure of this type can prevent people from attempting to steal your work. They're there primarily to help you in the recovery and reclamation process, should the worst-case happen.

Another basic, commonsensical step to take is to keep accurate and detailed records on the submission/activity history of your projects.

If you want to make a bad impression, ask people you'd like to read the script if they'll sign something like a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), or a prepared-by-you release form. That's sending a signal that you're either A) paranoid or B) arrogant enough to think your material is so much better than everyone else's out there (the implication being that you're so much more special than everyone else) that you need to take additional steps above and beyond the conventional ones to safeguard your work. Not exactly the way you want producers, development execs, and agents to perceive you.

Although this all might sound kind of gloomy, there is a true silver lining here: while intellectual property theft does take place from time to time in the entertainment industry, it's quite rare. Why? Well, because the reality is that trying to rip off a writer could potentially cost the crook significantly more than dealing with him or her in an honest, straightforward manner. So get busy writing the best scripts you can write, then be smart in the way you get them out there.

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Kirkland said...


Do "ideas" stolen?

In a word, "yes."

Will yours get stolen?

In a word, "yes."

How can you prevent that from happening?

In a word, "never-mind."

In a phrase, "Don't think. And don't allow any one else to think."

Here's a news flash, and I forget who said this originally--Oh, let's face it, it's a convenient absentmindedness because I don't want the original thinker of this idea to know I stole it from him (or her--let's be really mysterious here)--but, "there are no new ideas, only new ways to tell them."

And you can quote me on that (I mean, what the hell, it's not my own idea).

If you go around worrying about people ripping off your ideas, you'll never get anywhere in this business. Look around: TV, movies, books, whatever medium you look at, is any of that shit new?

Somebody else once said (yeah, this thought isn't original either), "It's not the story, it's how you tell the story..."

Concentrate on being the best storyteller you can be, forget all that other stuff, and you'll be alright.

Julie Gray said...

Kirkland, thank you for consistently contributing informed and helpful comments. If you ever want to contribute something to the Rouge Wave along the lines of an article, I know the editor; I can hook you up :)

Belzecue said...

John August has a post on the subject.

I mention it here because one of the commenters on that post echoes something I also heard: that Spielberg is frequently amazed that he would have a brilliant idea for a movie only to soon discover somebody else was already working on it. He figured all these ideas are out there in the 'ether', waiting to be grabbed.

Most recently this happened to me with The Happening. I was anxious it would kill prospects for my similar story -- by being awfully good or awfully bad.

Thankfully for me, Shyamalan's take on it was uninspiring and plain loony in places, so I can still get my shot in. BUT, that's not to say someone else, somewhere in the world, isn't thinking the same thing right now, and they might beat me to it and tell a similar story in a much more entertaining way.

As a Creator, you take your lumps graciously and philosophically when you lose the race to get that new idea first to the screen.

What you DON'T do is launch a legal war against the studio or the writer who you believe stole your precious mojo. (e.g. Try to take down Ted and Terry because you posted your pirate-themed screenplay on your blog two years before the first Pirates came out.)

Now there *is* the infrequent case of a writer having justifiable concerns about his or her screenplay being misused. If you doubt this, go listen to the Joe Eszterhas interview on the Bat Segundo show where he tells the story about his agent discovering another writer had submitted one of Joe's earlier screenplays under his own name. It happens. But unless you are Joe Eszterhas it's almost certainly not going to happen to you.

What you SHOULD do (not being Joe Eszterhas) is go back to basics with your 'stolen' idea -- because really, somebody just beat you to it, right? Go back to basics and rework it, juggle the elements, and you've still got something worthwhile -- if it was that way to begin with. Mix it up... werewolves in cyberspace... aliens in kindergarten... leprechauns win a golf tournament...

Plus, as Julie would remind you, you've still got that script as 1) good writing experience, and 2) one more writing sample when interested folk ask the inevitable: "What else yer got?"

deepstructure said...

tim o'reilly (the publisher), has an excellent summary of this problem:

""Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy."

a form of this could be added to your 'patterns in writers' list.

perhaps something like "inexperienced writers are as unrealistically concerned about someone stealing their idea as they are convinced that someone will buy it."

Christina said...

People are too in love with their own ideas to steal mine. That's been my experience.

Dave Shepherd said...

My thoughts --

1. Most of the people who would steal your ideas aren't good enough to do anything with them anyway.

2. It makes 0 logistical sense for a producer. If they steal the idea, they have to hire a more expensive writer to do the work -- it's cheaper to just pay you for the screenplay.

3. On The Happening -- what I found funny is that Hitchcock thought of that idea before M. Night was born and I think there was a Twilight Episode to the same effect.

Anyway, it's not the idea, it's the execution.

I can give you an idea about a father fish swimming across the ocean to save his son's life -- but that doesn't mean you're going to come up with Finding Nemo.

Kirkland said...

Oh, Rouge-Wave Girlie, you tease me so. Guest contributer? Are you serious?

Another thought on "stealing" ideas.

Forget it. What you should be stealing is great character descriptions (and you might as well steal dialog from overheard conversations, too)

*Here's a sample of a really great piece of character description: Vale has freezer burns on his soul. 7 little words which describe Walter Vale to a T. Perfect. (The movie is The Vistor, the actor who potraits Vale is Richard Jenkins). Does it matter how old Vale is? No. White, Black, Asian? No. Male or Female? No. None of it matters. Everything you need to know and more, is in those 7 little words. The essence of the film is in that character description.

From that description we know Vale is detached from family, friends, life. We know that he or she is tired, worn-out, beaten by life's circumstances and challenges. We know that Vale is very near the end of his or her rope. Beyond redemption? Maybe. A lost soul. Yes, but a compelling lost soul. One thing is clear from those 7 little words, Vale will be worth watching.

So, don't worry about somebody stealing your script, worry about your writing. If you write great stories--with great character descriptions and dialog--no one will be able to steal your talent. You'll find your place in Hollywood.

So says RJ Smith in an article about Richard Jenkins in the Sept issue of Los Angeles magazine.