Wanting to join a writers’ group I used to be involved with, a nervous newcomer asked: “What if someone steals my idea?” At the time I thought it an arrogant question and on behalf of the group, was offended by the inference. But shortly after, someone posed the same question to a panel discussing the value of writers’ groups at a writers’ festival I attended. And it came up again in discussion recently. It seems to be a concern that is probably more common than one might think.
It’s worth noting that each of the persons preoccupied with the issue of plot theft, was an emerging writer, fairly early in their writing journey. I guess we all think (or at least, hope) that we are going to write the bestseller that will set us up for the rest of our writerly lives. And I suppose it’s only natural to feel protective of our plot ideas.
But really, when we think rationally rather than emotionally about the nature of writing we realise that, as with reading, writing is a very subjective process. So let’s deconstruct this concept a little. We all have different likes and dislikes, opinions and views, and a wealth of experience that is completely our own. No one else can think and feel exactly like us. We are all individuals. And we all make autonomous emotional and intellectual interpretations of that which we observe, whether it be music, art, dance, literature, etc. We have no choice about this. It’s the human condition.
Two people from the same family, same gender, same sociocultural and educational backgrounds, with the same preferences and views about almost everything, can read the same book and give two completely different responses to the story. Because they are different people who bring their own unique complexities to that which they experience. We think and feel differently. Each of us. If those same two people were to write their life stories, they would write two completely different biographies. See where I’m going here?
Writers are individuals. It makes no difference whatsoever what we write about, our stories are our stories. And crucially, they are written with our own unique and distinct writing style. Writing ‘style’ is not something that can be taught or replicated (at least not successfully). As writers, we may study and excel at all the technical aspects of writing, such as grammar, structure, voice, point-of-view, tense, etc, but it’s the way in which each individual uses language to communicate these skills—our expression—that creates an individualistic writing style.
There are a few very public examples of writers who pursue litigious action against other writers for stealing their ideas. Author of the very successful DaVinci Code, Dan Brown, was sued over copyright infringement by the authors of a non-fiction book The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail. Apparently the researchers of this book wrote that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child and that this knowledge was concealed by the Catholic Church. Basically, they accused Dan Brown of using their research to write his book. They lost.
Another case was that of JK Rowling being sued by the author of Willy the Wizard Adrian Jacobs, or at least by his estate given that he died sometime in the 90s. Jacobs wrote of a boy wizard who went to a wizarding school, rode on wizard trains where wizard chess was played; and there was a wizard prison and a special wizard hospital. There was even a portal used to move between worlds, wizard and mortal. And in Goblet of Fire, which was the major point of contention, a wizard challenge that required the use of a bathroom. You could almost say that these two books had the same plot, and given that Willy the Wizard was written some 20 years before Harry Potter, that maybe Jacobs had a point. Except for the writing. The book about Willy the Wizard was 16 pages long and Goblet of Fire was 636 pages long. And one need only to look at the expression and writing style of both books (as well as the other six books in the Harry Potter series) to make assertions about the validity of the claim. It was also dismissed.
The point of the matter is that a plot idea is just a plot idea. And ideas, theories, information or facts, can’t be claimed or owned. It’s the interpretation of the ideas, theories, information, facts or concepts, and the expression and writing style used to communicate them that matters. So those of you who may be worried about others ‘stealing your ideas’, don’t be. If you are a good writer, you will develop your own unique writing style, which no one else can replicate. And when you write your story, it will be your story.