Protecting Your Plot Ideas

Q: I wrote a book. I now want to get it “out there”. I am afraid someone will steal it. I have been searching the web for information to no avail. Can someone give me some useful information? -Mary


A:
I’m assuming that the information you’re searching for is information on whether someone will “steal” your idea – how to protect it, how often this kind of thing happens, and so forth. That said, you should know that as soon as you write your project down – “fix it in tangible form,” to use the legal parlance – it will be protected under the U.S. copyright laws. For further protection, you can consider registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, or, depending on the type of material, the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Finally, if you have some kind of breaking news kind of story, you can consider having the agent or editor sign a confidentiality agreement. So those are a couple of practical steps you can take to make sure you can sleep at night.

In reality, though, this kind of worry – although common in first-time authors – is less of a concern than you think. First of all, most agents and editors are overworked, as is, and don’t have the time or inclination to “steal” your book ideas. Further, if they did steal ‘em, and if you can prove this theft, the agents/editors would be in a heap of trouble because – as I said above – your work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws.

Second, since our reputation really is founded on our honesty and trustworthiness, one kind of incident of “theft” could destroy our reputations and our livelihood – so that’s another reason why this kind of theft is so very rare. Be sure you send your project to reputable people.

On the other hand, it’s often said that the rules in Hollywood are sometimes a bit more lax – so it’s probably a good idea to not shop your project around indiscriminately. Further, you cannot protect an idea – only the tangible expression of the idea. So, to make that clearer, you can’t protect the idea of doing a book about a battle in WWII – but you can protect the actual way you describe the battle, the characters, the scene, and so forth.

Bottom line: there’s a chance, however small, that someone will steal your ideas. But it tends to be a very small chance. You decide if it’s worth it. Good luck!

Jeff Kleinman, Literary Agent
Co-Founder of
Folio Literary Management