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Using Another Writer's Ideas
by Dawn Copeman

Return to Rights & Copyright · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

We had an interesting question from Amanda H. Geard. She wrote: "I read a story by a writer a while ago -- one of the stories I critiqued on a site called Critters.org -- and the writer of this particular story had a cool idea I'd like to use in an upcoming story I still want to write, although I won't write it the same way he used it in his story. Is that an acceptable thing to do, use another writer's idea, but changing it in your own story? Or will it be better if I ask the writer for permission to use his idea in my story before I write it? What's the right thing to do here?

"Please advise, as I'm in two minds about it, and don't want to start the story before I know what to do."

"To provide an answer to Amanda's dilemma," writes Janis Hutchinson, "She needs to be more specific about what 'kind' of idea it is. If it's something you find happening in life already, then it would probably be okay. If she spelled it out a little more, it would help other writers facing the same problem."

Other writers also feel that they would like to know a little bit more about Amanda's dilemma before being able to give a complete answer.

Katherine Swarts emailed to say it is "Hard to answer this without knowing the nature of the 'idea.' Reuse of items that could be described by that word range from such basic plot points as 'boy meets girl--boy wins girl' (definitely not copyrightable) to the duplication of multiple characters down to their names (an infringement suit waiting to happen).

"I'm going to guess that the point under consideration here falls somewhere between, such as an ingenious solution to a mystery; if I were in that spot--or if I had any doubt at all--I would definitely check with the original writer first, and add a note that I will consider lack of response a 'yes.' All you can ever lose by that approach is a few days.

Kate Ashby is of the opinion that Amanda should not use the idea at all, but if she does, she should definitely get permission. She wrote: "I assume if the writer had it on the site Critters.org for critique it hasn't been published yet. Please ask any writer if you can use his/her idea. It's their idea and not morally right for you to take it even after a considerable length of time. I would want you to ask me if I was that writer. It is frustrating and not fair, to find out later, that someone who saw your work on a site for critique stole the idea.

"Of course if that writer has already had the idea/story published and it's out there then it's still stealing but less of a crime. They have pride in being first. You and others will know that you had it second."

Christine Venzon advises Amanda to proceed with caution. She wrote: "Regarding Amanda's question about using another writer's idea for her own story, I would say it depends on how much she values her online relationship with this writer (they can get pretty personal) and also how similar her idea is to his. But also consider that he may have borrowed his concept from another source, and was doubtlessly influenced by something he read, saw, overheard, etc. in forming it. Ideas, after all, can't be copyrighted. No one can claim an idea as truly and wholly his own."

That's a very good point, Christine. I know that in the world of nonfiction we all seem to come up with similar ideas at the same time and it's often a case of who can get their query to the editor first as to who gets the commission. If there are only seven, 37 or 101 basic plots (the numbers vary according to different sources) then having a truly original idea is very, very rare.

Tunji Ajibade wonders whether Amanda wants to borrow the idea or the voice of the writer. In which case there is no problem at all as that is how many writers start out and then move on to develop their style.

But Leona Wisoker thinks that Amanda does want to borrow the idea and has some excellent advice concerning this for all writers of fiction. She wrote: "This hits a common misunderstanding among beginning writers. Many people are afraid to submit to writing groups, online or off, precisely because they're afraid of their ideas being stolen. The reality is: in most instances, ideas aren't protected. As long as your method of expressing that idea is substantially different, your language, characters, plots, etc, then it's no problem.

"For example: 'horses can talk.' There's an idea that's been done a zillion times over and never raised a protest. A character whose mother is a psychopathic nurse and father is a pot-smoking carpenter, and they move from America to New Zealand to Alaska, and have certain life-changing adventures along the way--that isn't an idea, it's a plotline. That's not steal-able, even if you rearrange it into New Zealand to Spain to Russia (unless that difference significantly changes the actual events of the story). Any one segment of that plotline is an idea: a character whose mother is a psychopathic nurse, for example, is not a protected item. As long as the actual character is different (for example, if the original nurse appears cold and snooty and the 'stolen' one appears warm and bubbly, which changes significant aspects of the plot line in and of itself) -- you're safe.

Also, it largely depends on how generic or specific the idea you're considering 'stealing' is; there are surprisingly few really, truly original ideas. If you dig a bit, you'll probably find other published examples of that idea being used in fiction (or even nonfiction!), at which point you're totally safe swiping it -- again, as long as you make sure you're not just copy and pasting his work into yours (which is plagiarism)... and as for asking permission, I see that as having two possible results: he's flattered and says yes, or he gets paranoid and starts watching your work like a hawk, ready to haul you into court on the least suspicion. The risk from the latter, given that you won't be doing anything wrong, outweighs the benefit of the former. It is worthwhile, though, to contact the author, compliment him on his ingenuity, and ask where he got that idea from, to see if he pulled it from real-world research or personal events or such. Just be sure to phrase the question with care to avoid sounding like you want to steal his idea... and of course, I'm not speaking as one familiar with legal matters, just as a fellow writer. So I make no claim to infallibility."

Thank you to all who answered in response to Amanda's query. I hope that helped.

Find Out More:

Is It Research or Plagiarism? - Moira Allen

Writing under the Influence: Inspiration, Plagiarism and Homage - Victoria Grossack

Your Prose or Mine - Have You Ever Been Tempted to Plagiarise? - Devyani Borade

Copyright © 2011 by Dawn Copeman

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Dawn Copeman is a UK-based freelance writer and educator who has published over 300 articles on the topics of travel, cookery, history, health and writing. An experienced commercial freelancer, Dawn contributed several chapters on commercial writing to Moira Allen's Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer (2nd Edition).


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