The Myth of “Stealing” Ideas

Tayari Jones notes an exchange she had with a young writer who was terrified of sending her work to an agent because this writer believed that her work would be “stolen.” I think Tayari is right to suggest that this is a crisis of confidence. Literary agents simply do not have the time to “steal” anyone’s work. And think about it. Why would they open themselves up to an expensive legal battle when they are already drowning in manuscripts and strapped for time and money? Further, even if a writer can make the case that the work was “stolen,” do you honestly think that this is the only idea a writer’s ever going to come up with?

I once met a temp who was convinced that the producers of the movie Michael had “stolen” her screenplay about an angel fond of debauchery.

“Did you register your screenplay with the WGA?” I asked.

She hadn’t. And, in fact, upon close examination of her story, I realized it was bullshit. She mentioned Pete Dexter, but could not convince me that she had met with any producers, much less signed any contract. I pointed out to her that sometimes ideas come in patterns, pointing to all of the Freaky Friday-like movies of 1988 (Big, Vice Versa and Like Father, Like Son). But she was unfazed. She was convinced that the producers had “stolen” the idea from her.

What’s more, this woman was extremely miserable about it. And this was the excuse she had made to stop writing.

When I was a younger and more foolish man, I was pissed at Tab Murphy in 1995 because of a movie called Last of the Dogmen. Shortly after high school, I had written a screenplay about some teenagers stumbling upon a forgotten tribe of Native Americans. But this Tab Murphy guy managed to get the movie made before I could attract any interest. And what’s more, it starred the insufferable Tom Berenger. The bastard! Still, I didn’t let it faze me and I kept writing.

I’ve seen posts and associations I’ve made on this website seemingly pilfered by newspaper columnists. Or were they? Really, why should I be so self-important to think that they got the ideas from me?

The point of all this is that if you’re a writer clinging to the stubborn notion that someone is out there to “steal” your work, and if you are letting this get in the way of writing, submitting, or pitching, then I ask you for the good of humanity to step out of the way. Take up something else. All good writers are idea machines. All good writers have distinct and original voices in which an “idea” is just one component of an equation as intricate and inexplicable as love.

Perhaps this fundamental misunderstanding of the writing process is what causes so many people to ask the question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” Would these same people ask a bookkeeper, “How do you keep focus when you’re inundated with so many numbers?” It’s just the way writers are wired. For a writer, ideas flow through the noggin like a barely controllable fire and trying to manage all this is a bit like a good head rush during a run. There’s really nothing writers can do about this other than set it down on paper and do the best they can to convey this frenzy in coherent terms. If they’re lucky, they can make a living at this.


  1. What Sara said.

    It’s funny. I just had a long conversation with my family about my blogging. While some familly members like my blog, one seems to feel that I put too much information out into the world. The fear? a) that I’ll embarrass myself and b) that I’ll be scooped, so I just found myself rehearsing many of these same points the other day.

    Writers like to have an audience. Writers often embarrass their families. But writers who worry about their ideas getting stolen have missed a big part of the point, I think.

  2. One of the manifestations of this pathology I see quite often is beginning writers in a workshop marking each page with the copyright C in a tiny bubble. Please. Like anyone would want to take your sentimental, overwritten tripe. Ironically, only terrible writers are worried about someone stealing their work. Good ones know that not only will no one ever steal it, no one ever could.

  3. Writers who start out in this industry need to be aware that if your screenplay can be rewritten in any way, whether it’s being tweeked or whatever ,there is always a possibility of that screenplay being stolen. It’s best to start out with films about historic events that can’t be tweeked or changed in anyway. Events that the public is already aware of are the best to start out with. The reason is because the public is already aware of the particular historic event that is being written about, and it would be hard to tweek or steal an idea based on an historic event due to fear of historic societies filing lawsuits on the film production studios who try to rewrite history. Film producers have no time for lawsuits and are less willing to steal a screenplay based on an actual event recorded in history.

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