Monday, July 9, 2012

Three myths (and two truths) about idea theft

MYTH #1: Idea theft never happens, people who think that are paranoid.
Actually, it does. One of the most famous cases on "Hollywood accounting" is Buchwald v. Paramount, in which Art Buchwald sued Paramount and got a judgment saying that Paramount stole the idea for "Coming to America" from him. And studios aren't the only people who can steal ideas...

MYTH #2: Idea theft happens all the time, people who don't think that are crazy.
This is even less true than #1, for three reasons.

  1. Even if it looks like your idea, it may not be based on your idea. In a coming post I'll discuss this in more detail, but for someone to steal your idea they had to know about your idea. It's quite probable that even if you've sent it to them, no one in the studio has seen it. And if they haven't seen it then they haven't stolen it.
  2. People in the creative industries are creative. Do you steal ideas from other creators? Do you think it's offensive for someone to accuse you of this? Other creators feel the same way. Even (most) studio executives don't like to think of themselves as taking ideas from people.
  3. It's often cheaper for studios just to pay you off. Seriously. This is an industry where lawyers force creators to blur logos on t-shirts on people walking onscreen for 2 seconds, because they're afraid of being sued by the mark owner. If they could make a potential issue go away for $25,000, they will do it pretty much every time. Or they won't make the content. (Note though that as more content moves to the Web where production costs are lower, these economics may change.)

MYTH #3: If you do X, you can make idea theft impossible.
There is no magic amulet of protection. The best-crafted NDA or submission agreement in the world won't stop someone who is committed to stealing your idea. If you really want to keep it a secret, you shouldn't talk about it to anyone. Of course if you don't talk about it then you can't pitch it, and if you can't pitch it then it'll never get made. And if you really insist on getting these kinds of protections, you risk making yourself seem so difficult to deal with that your idea will never get made either.

TRUTH #1: Studios are more worried about these claims than you are.
Studios are probably more concerned about people bringing claims of idea theft against them than creators are about having their ideas stolen. This is why almost every content creation company either won't accept unsolicited submissions or makes you waive all claims against them before they'll take a look. It's also one of the biggest reasons that studios insist on submissions coming through an agent or a lawyer: because industry custom is that you don't need an NDA or other protection to look at things you get this way.

TRUTH #2: Studios aren't really the ones you need to worry about.
For every person who thinks their ideas are being stolen by studios, there are many times more people out there whose work is actually being reused without permission all over the Internet. I'm not talking about things like uploading Hollywood movies to YouTube or MegaUpload, though. I'm talking about websites that reproduce content from other sites without permission, whether because that's their business model or because it was submitted by users.

And more on this last point in some upcoming posts.

One example of what I'm talking about in the last Truth is found at
with the almost surreal followup at

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