How to handle “idea theft”

This week on the Toronto Freelance Editors and Writers email list, a member asked the group for advice on a tricky situation. It’s a familiar one to most freelance writers and many editors who work with both freelance and staff writers.

This writer had pitched a profile of a young entrepreneur to a weekly community newspaper and the editor told her there was no freelance budget for the piece and offered only a byline as compensation. A year before, she contributed an article to the same paper and only received a byline, but justified it at the time because she had already written the piece and she was hoping it would lead to future paid work (it didn’t).

A few weeks after the most recent pitch, she saw the entrepreneur profile on the front page of the paper, written by a staff writer.

There was no way to tell if the editor had assigned the profile to the staff writer, or if the staff writer independently came up with the idea. The freelancer wanted to know from TFEW’s experienced writers and editors what they have done in similar situations.

So, what do to? Is it worthwhile to confront the editor and ask where the idea came from, or even seek a finder’s fee or other compensation?

As TFEW’s members quickly pointed out, while taking a freelancer’s idea is a jerky thing to do, it’s not breaking any laws and editors get away with it all the time. Another point to keep in mind is that, particularly with timely pitches, it’s not uncommon for several writers to come up with the same idea at the same time—especially if your pitch was more an “idea” for a story than a specific piece that only you could write. It’s also good to be realistic about timelines: if a publication turns down a pitch but the same story appears in its next issue, chances are that a writer was already working on it.

The best suggested course of action we saw was from a TFEW member who contacted the editor and said something to the effect of: “Since you ran a story similar to the one I pitched, I believe that means my ideas are on the right track and you’re interested in hearing more of them.” Brilliant! In this case, the writer got work from the publication.

This tactic only works if you’re interested in pitching the publication again, of course. If they have no freelance budget or if you’ve entirely lost faith in the editor, it’s probably wise to shake off any lingering anger or disappointment and move on.

Thanks to TFEW and its wise members. If you want to lay claim to any of the above pieces of advice or add to them, please do so in the comments!

[UPDATE: October 20, 2011 The writer has responded to the TFEW group to say she contacted the editor about the story. The editor replied to say that the staff writer had heard the idea from another source, but she understood her concern, as a former freelancer herself, and said she’d keep the writer in mind for future freelance opportunities.]

Posted on October 19, 2011 at 12:49 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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  1. Written by Dominique Millette
    on October 20, 2011 at 5:40 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    There’s no way an editor would be unaware a story’s exactly like something a freelancer pitched beforehand. I think once bitten, twice shy. Also, if an editor tells you there’s no budget for freelancers, that means no budget for freelancers. Changing someone’s mind about this takes a considerable time investment, by building a personal relationship and supplying free work on a long-term basis, with no guarantee of return on investment. Verdict: not a way to make a living. However, it could be a way to get a staff job eventually, since there’s high turnover at the community level. Applicants just have to keep in mind they are badly paid ($25,000-$30,000 p.a.) and usually have irregular hours with a lot of unpaid overtime.

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