The Born Freelancer on (Not) Having Your Ideas Stolen

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.



The police tell us to stencil our name or other uniquely identifiable mark on our most valuable property. In the event it is stolen, that simple procedure will help identify it as ours and greatly increase the odds of having it returned.

It’s not so simple with ideas.

We writers love to discuss them. We throw them around verbally with playful abandon, embellishing them as we go along, before more fully deploying them in some creative work or another… if they haven’t irretrievably morphed and gotten away from us first.

By their very nature, ideas are a gift from the cosmos. Where do they come from? Who can say. How do we perceive them? I do not know. Are they really “ours”? Maybe – but only for a little while. Are any of them actually original? Possibly – but only very few.

During some periods in our creative lives (if we’re lucky) they flow like never ending fountains of inspiration, easily discarded because another dozen or more are soon on their way. During other, less indulgent and more stressful periods, the flow can reduce to a trickle – or even worse – it can shut off entirely for no apparent reason.

So it may appear to court the displeasure of the muses (of whom I have written elsewhere) to hoard or in any way obstruct their natural exuberance in the wild. Especially in this age when it has never been easier to share ideas or trade them with others near or far online.

However, if you’re a professional freelancer, you quickly come to the realization that your ideas are the very foundations of your creative existence, the begetters of all income. And so you must, perhaps regrettably, learn to treat them with a greater degree of protectiveness than you might wish to do otherwise.

Loose lips sink ships…

Once upon a time during my rookie days I worked on an irreverent current affairs broadcast, desperately trying to find unique and off-beat ideas that would enable me to climb up the show’s freelancing rungs.

During a weekly general meeting, in which select freelancers were invited to attend, one such idea was bestowed upon me by the benevolent muses above. I blurted it out in raw, unfinished form. The producer closed her eyes momentarily and then spoke the magic words, “Yeah, that might work”. Without first checking to see if I’d been properly contracted, I rushed home to fully flesh out my idea.

I decided to hand in my script in person to preclude any possible delays. So late the next morning I turned up at her office door and gave her my (by default still spec) script. She glanced at it and handed it back. “Oh, Mike’s already done this”. I must have looked aghast. She looked puzzled. I explained that it had been my idea at yesterday’s meeting. “Oh, was it?” she sighed, her mind already buzzing with a hundred other problems, “Sorry, I honestly didn’t remember. But Mike brought it in first thing this morning – so better luck next time”.

I was prepared to let it go until a couple fellow bottom-rungers commiserated with me over a partially liquid lunch. Before long they had me feeling it had indeed been the crime of the century.

But when I confronted “Mike” later that day and accused him of theft he just laughed and said something like, he didn’t remember whose idea it was and anyway since he’d been first to execute a fully developed script that gave him the right to use it.

What was especially galling was that his three or four page script and my three or four script were practically identical in every respect. The idea had been so self-evident once I had expressed it aloud that it had essentially dictated the shape and flow of the segment. A gift from the cosmos, indeed.

“Mike” received justifiable kudos for his work that week. Me? I was told to suck it up, buttercup.

What did I learn?

I learned:

* that I should’ve discussed my idea confidentially with the producer (using the public meeting only to get a sense of the “lay of the land”);

* that I should’ve put it in writing immediately so she had a record of its originator (and not relied upon her memory);

* that I should’ve immediately confirmed whether or not a contract was being issued;

* that the concept of “ownership” of an idea was a debatable one that very few of my fellow freelancers agreed with in theory but which most practiced ferociously in reality;

and finally,

* that I should’ve acted with greater alacrity to execute my idea into a finished script. The secret for selling a good story is the same as for telling good comedy… Timing, timing, timing!

My remaining months with that production benefited from the experience. I was able to pitch and sell more material. I even became (sort of) friendly with “Mike” and recognized that he was no hardened criminal but a fanatically driven, hard working fellow freelancer willing to take inspiration from wherever – and whomever – it may appear. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had his greatest successes later in life adapting other people’s work.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow

I hadn’t thought much about that seminal period of my life until I was preparing this post. Only now do I realize how much it has continued to influence my attitudes to this day towards the safekeeping of any good ideas that come my way.

Updating what I learned then to what I still believe now, I would posit that

* nobody really “owns” an idea, at best they come into our temporary custody as gifts;

* raw undeveloped ideas are impossible to protect once out in public. So releasing them “into the wild” to help them grow before fully deploying them should be done only with the most sympathetic, trustworthy individuals (such as writing partners, close friends or family);

* viable ideas need to be recorded as soon as they are discussed with a producer, editor or publisher. Any verbal discussions should be immediately summarized and sent in a time-stamped email to the potential buyer. This is in no way meant to impugn their integrity. It is just that you must never rely on their memory. And any verbal offer to purchase should be immediately confirmed in writing, ideally with a negotiable contract;

* the best protection for a good idea is timely execution. OK so you cannot copyright actual ideas but you can better protect them in completed written form. In the past I have registered spec scripts with various guild script-protection services before sending them out to be read. I have also registered original spec fiction and non-fiction long form materials with the copyright office. Although copyright is normally understood to exist upon creation of most original freelance work you may still have to prove it;

and finally,

* most freelancers I know are honest, hardworking individuals who would not knowingly steal anyone’s idea. But it is often impossible to prove who originated what when human memories are so faulty. Of course, some writers don’t care who came up with what – they’ll use it regardless. Others will claim credit for a whole idea from suggesting even the slightest innovation. So I only share undeveloped ideas selectively and with caution. (Sharing via email is insecure at best but at least generates a record.) Even good friends can come to verbal blows when claiming certain ideas. I know this from unhappy personal experience.

The takeaway

Ideas are the working freelancer’s bread and butter.

Hoarding may result in them becoming outdated, irrelevant or even worse, bestowed upon – and used by – others.

Ideas need to be nurtured in their embryonic stages; protected and safeguarded while still young and developing; and deployed in a timely and strategic manner once fully mature and realized.

Treated with respect they will serve you well. Of course, they will sometimes need to breathe and occasionally go for a run around the block but only with the most trusted friends and colleagues.

And, as with all other valuable property, if you can take them and make them uniquely and identifiably your own, they will almost always be that much harder to steal.


Posted on April 25, 2019 at 9:58 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Christine Peets
    on April 27, 2019 at 2:25 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    This is such timely, and timeless, advice. I have been burned a couple of times discussing ideas with editors or publishers that they liked, but I didn’t follow through getting the assignment in writing. I am sure it’s happened to many, but we can all learn from this.

  2. Written by Doreen Pendgracs
    on April 29, 2019 at 9:31 am
    Reply · Permalink

    As a travel writer who has been on numerous “press trips” I always wondered how we were all going to come up with unique and different stories that each of us would be able to sell from the same experiences. But I quickly learned that as individuals, each of us sees the world and our experiences through very unique eyes and ears. So we will each tell a different story from the same experiences. I think the key to this article is in the final sentence: “Make them [the idea/pitch] uniquely and identifiably your own, they will almost always be that much harder to steal.” So true. If you stamp your individuality on the pitch, it is you and only you who will be able to write that exact story.

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