Copyright: you can’t lock up your ideas

Can you protect your ideas for blogs, books, etc.?

Copyright: you can't lock up your ideasThere is a very short and not very pleasant answer here: you can’t. You can copyright titles, texts, poems, novels, etc., and you can trademark a logo or name, but until an idea is expressed and recorded in some considerable detail you can’t stop somebody else developing and exploiting it, or at least something very similar to it.

Once upon a time – at around the time that food intolerances became fashionable – I came up with a nifty idea to develop a range of dairy-free and gluten-free food products. Like a good citizen I consulted my friendly local Business Link advisor who said, “great idea, forget it.”

When I asked why he said, “because your potential distributors, like supermarkets, will sit back and watch while you spend a fortune on developing the products, get a few samples from you, make the products themselves with small differences in names and ingredients, and then tell you to **** off.”

Another time I came up with an idea for a documentary series for one of the main TV channels in the UK. I made four consecutive presentations to so-called “commissioning editors” (who turned out afterwards to have been freelance, independent producers) who liked the idea very much. Then I heard nothing.

12 months later the channel aired a series using not only my idea, but even my title … the only thing they had changed was whereas I had suggested featuring three men and three women, they had six women. Although I had what seemed like a valid case, I was advised that should I try to take legal action they would mess me around with their expensive lawyers until I ran out of money.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there

It’s often a case of striking a balance. On the one hand you want to run your idea past sufficient people whose opinions you value, and this is a very important part of your development and refinement processes. On the other hand, though, you don’t want to talk about your idea in a busy pub, bar, restaurant or even bus or train, because you never know who might be listening.

And even if you write up your idea in some detail, it won’t necessarily be enough to prove it’s yours in a court of law. When I had my run-in with that TV channel (see above) my idea ran to a 20 page proposal with skeleton scripts of each episode and a full production and post-production budget.

Essentially, the only real protection you can get is if your idea could only possibly be developed and written by you … and that anyone else couldn’t do it successfully without you.

So … use your uniqueness!

And if you have any tips on how writers and other “creatives” can protect their ideas, please share them – they will be very gratefully received!

Writing advice that helps you win:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“Business Writing Made Easy…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published

photo credit: Darwin Bell via photopin cc

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  1. Spot on.

    It not only happens outside of corporate companies – but in them too.

    You just have to realise some people are creators and some are exploiters and some are includers.

    A creator and an includer are a good fit.
    A creator and an exploiter are not – and there are a LOT of exploitative types out there – especially in bad times.

    The harsh lesson is you have to just push yourself out there. The good folks we collect will sell on our behalf (up to a point) and (of course) you will do the same.

    • Thanks for dropping by Richard! And yes, when that happens within a corporation that must be even harder for the creator to cope with because chances are the exploiter outranks him or her, which would add a whole new political can of worms to the original issue. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and as you say, all the worse in bad economic times.

  2. Yes, it’s a common problem. You can take all the precautions you like: keeping track of the ’email/paper trail’ over the course of the idea’s development; sending the idea to yourself and, possibly, a lawyer in sealed envelopes, to remain unopened unless you end up in court; getting NDA’s etc . . . But in the end, you’ve got to tell someone to stand a chance of getting your idea off the ground.

    The usual thing is that several people are thinking about the same thing at the same time which can be one o the reasons why new TV show ideas often arrive in twos and threes on different channels.

    Thinking about these risks puts you in danger of suffering paralysis and ending up not doing anything. Take the standard precautions, let the people you’re seeing know that you’ve taken them (they usually seem a bit impressed, in my experience) and then work as quickly as possible towards completing the production.

    • Some good points Simon – you’re right of course, if you’re too cautious you never get anywhere. But it may help if, as you suggest, you make it known to whoever you’re sharing an idea with that you at least KNOW what the risks are, and you’re as prepared for them as possible.

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