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Stealing Ideas

First point: I am not a lawyer. None of this should be taken as legal advice; it's just my experience.

Second point: Nobody is going to steal your idea.

I don't know if there's anything someone can say that marks them as a Hollywood outsider/amateur quicker than expressing a fear of stolen ideas, and it comes up all the time.

Ideas cannot be copyrighted, therefore cannot be stolen.

If two people have a conversation about a movie idea where a Miss Universe pageant winner gets abducted by aliens who need a new ruler, that idea can be written by either of them fairly. What writers can copyright is the written work itself (an outline, screenplay, etc.), but even that isn't entirely necessary. In a broad sense, something is "copyrighted" as soon as it is written. Getting the little stamp of approval from the US Copyright office is only helpful if trying to enforce a copyright (ex. I want to sue WB for stealing my Galaxy Quest meets Barbie movie). Even then, it's not a slam dunk lawsuit winner.

The WGA registration process is similar in that it's at least a time stamp of work, but that isn't the end-all, be-all of the discussion. In any case, arbitration and lawsuits are relatively compared to how often they get discussed -- not unlike shark attacks, I suppose.

When stolen-idea-lawsuits do happen, it generally doesn't go well for the plaintiff.

One: Plaintiffs are often suing richer people or even companies with lawyers on retainer. $$$ buys justice.

Two: Story structure and staples of a genre aren't considered part of a copyrighted work. In my sci-fi Miss Congeniality example, could you imagine a beautiful protagonist? Maybe ditzy? Are the aliens super weird looking? Maybe there's a violent alien specious trying to taking over the universe? Is there maybe a love story? Earth is put in peril during the third act? These are boiler plate ideas and are so familiar to the concept of movies, they would do nothing to prove the similarity between two movies about ditzy pageant winners getting abducted by aliens after some mistaken identity, thrown in an intergalactic war with bug-like creature who discover our hero is from Earth and thus want to blow up our planet with a space laser.

I'm going to back up a bit and go back to this rule: ideas can't be stolen.

Do you have any idea how many ideas are in Hollywood? I read an estimate that 70,000 screenplays get written in America each year. I'd guess "ideas" are 10x that number. Thousands of writers, actors, directors, manager, development executives, and assistants have ideas for movies. You think David Zaslav doesn't have at least one idea for a movie?

How about this: if anyone in Hollywood didn't have an idea for a movie, they could ask ANYBODY at any family reunion, "Hey, do you have a great idea for a movie or TV show? I'd love to hear it."

What I'm trying to illustrate is that ideas are literally thrown around, tossed around, and considered, for free, all the time. No idea is such as show-stopper that it's more likely to get stolen. Have people stolen ideas? In the history of Hollywood, sure. But they're not the best ideas. The best ideas for movies and shows are the ones that got rejected a dozen times.

People heard the "idea" for Get Out, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Back to the Future, etc. and rejected them. The "idea" for numerous classics was rejected. That's not just a knock on producers; that's a demonstration on the value of ideas.

I want to de-value "ideas." It's the work and the execution that make the ideas special. It's the labor of the writing, the production, the direction, the editing, and a hundred other tasks that come after the idea that make the end product worth anything.

I have an idea: cook a steak really well.

Did you do that? Why not? It'd be great. I bet people would like it. I bet people would even pay you if you could grill a steak to perfection.

See how ridiculous that sounds?

A sub-set of this fear that I also want to address is stealing from real-life stories. Put simply: history cannot be copyrighted. An event or person cannot be copyrighted and therefore cannot be stolen (kidnapping aside). I can't express how far my eyes rolled into the back of my head when a prospective client had me sign an NDA before he could tell me his "idea" for a movie about George Washington.*

Life rights are a separate, tricky business, but basically they're extra protection for someone expressing their First Amendment right to write about someone (presumably a historic/public figure). Life rights can also be used to keep a partnership with the living subject exclusive, but, again, that's really getting into the weeds. The larger point is that "true stories" aren't deserving of any more protection than other ideas.

Copyright the physical, written work, sure. Do the WGA registration if it makes you feel better, but for the love of God leave either registration number off the title page.

As paranoid as some content creators might be, I feel I encounter many more non-writers who are protective of "ideas" and at the end of the day, I want to help them. I want them to feel more confident sharing ideas.

If some dentist shares his idea about a TV drama set at a dentist office with 20 people (writers or not), he'll get 20 different reactions-- likely stuff like, "Do people want to see that?" "Shouldn't it be a comedy?" "Oh, let me tell you about when I got my wisdom teeth pulled!"

Our hypothetical dentist would then hone his idea. He would learn what people respond to and decide if it's worth sharing with a ghostwriter or TV producer. Or maybe he'll download a screenwriting program and write the first draft of his first script. I don't really care what he does after getting a bunch of different reactions from people because he'll be better informed moving forward.

And it means I won't be the first person responding to a man's dream just because he was too protective to share the "idea" with anyone else.

One of these days, I'll realize most of my advice is trying to help people not need me. I'm going to write away business, but at least there'll be better storytellers out there.

*The pitch wasn't really about George Washington, but it was a historical figure and I'd just assume not poke a litigious bear if I don't have to.


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