Let’s suppose you have this super-amazing idea and you know it’s a winner so realize you have to copyright it right now. (After all you don’t want someone to steal your super-amazing idea, right?) You call up a lawyer friend and ask what you need to do to copyright your super-amazing idea and lawyer friend says:
“You can’t copyright an idea.” Your heart sinks. It is so unfair! Your idea is so super-amazing that someone’s bound to steal it and make gazillions of dollars. And all from an idea that you came up with! Why can’t you protect your idea?
Here are two things to remember:
1) You can protect your idea.
It’s called a trade secret, so as long as you don’t spill the secret, it’s protected. If you want to protect your idea before it’s fully written and published, just zip the lip.
2) The idea is not the book.
Earlier this week, we talked about what makes ideas unique and one of the most important things to remember is that ideas are not books. You could have two books with very similar ideas and yet the execution of the concept turns out to be completely different. This is true in works outside of literature too. Examples:
Dracula vs. Twilight
These two books couldn’t be more different. But, if you strip away all the peripheral details, the idea behind these books is strangely similar.
Boy meets girl.
Boy obsesses over girl.
Turns out boy’s a vampire.
Antz vs. A Bug’s Life
Computer-animated ants go on a mission to save their ant community from bad-guy bugs. The wimpiest ant of them all becomes the unlikely hero in the story.
Anyone who’s ever seen both of these movies knows that while the concept is the same, the execution couldn’t be more different. One is clearly a child-friendly story with rosy-cheeked, charming characters. The other is a much darker film with a wry sense of humor. Even the movie ratings are different. Both have similar themes and story-lines but they are very different movies.
In the end, it all comes down to one thing: ideas are not books. Books are books. If you’re worried about protecting the idea for your book before you’ve written the whole thing, then you need to keep the details secret until you’re done writing. This means being careful about what you choose to share on internet forums or other public venues. You don’t have to be crazy, refusing to share even the slightest detail with your most trusted friends and colleagues (after all, you’ll probably want to get some feedback on your work before you start the query process). Just be smart about what information you share and where you share it.
Also, keep in mind that even if someone does have an idea that’s vaguely similar to yours, they will never be able to execute the idea quite the same way you will. That’s where you’re protected by copyright. While you can’t copyright an idea, you can copyright the expression of an idea. Once you’ve written the book, you can copyright that book as an expression of that original idea. Since you’re unique and your writing is unique, it stands to reason that even if someone else has a similar idea, they will never be able to write it like you will.Up next week: Infringement (stealing someone’s expression of an idea), Fair Use (when it’s OK to use copyrighted material) and Derivative Works (work that is derived from other copyrighted work).
Any questions? As I mentioned last Friday, I’m putting together a Q&A session so if you have any questions, post them in the comments or email me at contact.DIYMFA[at]gmail[dot]com and I’ll do my best either to address them in next week’s posts or answer them in the Q&A.