You stole my idea

by Tess Gerritsen

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
      -Ecclesiastes 1:9  

Years ago, when my husband and I were still newlyweds, we took our first trip to Cairo and hired an Egyptian guide named Abu to show us the sights.  As we stood gazing at the pyramids, Abu described the various architectural techniques used by the ancient Egyptians that are still in use even today.  And he quoted a phrase from Ecclesiastes: "There is nothing new under the sun."

In our archaeological travels since then, whenever we encounter some startlingly familiar feature in an old ruin (the street curbs and ancient fast-food counters in Pompeii, for instance), my husband and I repeat that same phrase that Abu quoted so many years ago.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Which, it turns out, applies to storytelling as well.  Novelists like to believe that their plots have never been used before, that they've dreamed up something completely fresh and original. They can't imagine that anyone else in the entire world could possibly have come up with the same amazing idea.  So when they learn that another author has simultaneously written a book with a similar plot, their first thought may be:  "He stole my idea!"  They'll try to figure out how the thief managed to get his hands on their story.  Maybe some sneaky editor called up a more experienced novelist and said, "I just read this manuscript with a great premise, but the author's a total unknown.  Why don't you write the book for us instead?"  Or maybe someone in the post office snatched the manuscript.  Or maybe the computer repairman swiped it off the hard drive. 

The fear of having one's plot stolen is such an obsession for unpublished authors that some will resort to the literary equivalent of hanging garlic against vampires.  At the top of their manuscript, they'll type in the all-powerful words that are sure to make any plagiarist quake: Copyright by John Doe!!!  And then they'll draw the magic symbol "C" with a circle around it, so that when the manuscript arrives on some big-shot NY editor's desk, she'll know that the writer is not someone to be trifled with.  She'll know that she can't steal his idea. That's what the writer thinks anyway.

But guess what those words "Copyright by John Doe" really tell the editor?  They tell her she's dealing with a paranoid amateur.  

In all my years as a novelist, I've never typed "Copyright by Tess Gerritsen" on my manuscripts.  Nor have I heard of a single instance of a novel being stolen by some sleazy New York editor. The reason these fears exist is probably due to the mistaken belief among newbies that a premise is the same thing as a plot, and therefore easily lifted. They believe that the really hard work of being a novelist is in coming up with the idea — not the writing itself.  (These are also the same people who approach published novelists at cocktail parties and tell them, "I've got a great idea for a book!  Why don't you write it and we'll split the profits?")  Anyone who's actually written a few books will tell you that it's what you do with the premise — how you spin it into a plot, and flesh out its characters — that turns an idea into a story. That's where the craft of writing, and the real hard work, comes in.  

Let me repeat:  a premise is not a plot.  

Just because two simultaneously released books have an identical premise, it doesn't mean someone stole someone else's idea.  Because, weirdly enough, it happens all the time. One romance editor told me she received a sudden deluge of manuscripts featuring race-car driver heroes.  She never did figure out why.  I have a friend who's a script reader in Hollywood, and she recalls when two different screenplays arrived within the same week, written by two writers from different parts of the country.  These scripts had the same wacky premise: a man dies, comes back reincarnated as a dog, and must win the affections of his wife.  How do two writers simultaneously dream up a premise this bizarre?  I don't know.  Maybe it's just something floating around in the ether.  Maybe they both read the same article about reincarnation, looked at their dogs, and thought: "Aha!"  

When ideas simultaneously occur to several authors, the reason is sometimes obvious.  Years ago, after Dolly the sheep was cloned, any editor could have predicted there'd be a rash of stories about cloning to follow.  Sometimes, a premise is so powerful, so elemental, it gets used again and again through the years.  "Romeo and Juliet" became "West Side Story".  "The Odyssey" became Cold Mountain and Brother, Where Art Thou?   When "West Side Story" was produced, writer Arthur Laurents openly credited Shakespeare as his source for the premise of star-crossed lovers.  He took Shakespeare's tale — and turned it into a modern masterpiece all his own.

While I don't worry about my own ideas getting stolen, I do worry a lot about getting accused of being a thief.  A few years ago, I got an email from an unpublished writer who'd attended one of my workshops.  She accused me of stealing her idea.  "I'm considering legal action," she said.  "I want you to apologize and admit you are a plagiarist."  The idea I supposedly stole from her was about criminals kidnapping pregnant women, cutting them open, and stealing their babies.  (Which was the premise for my book Body Double.)  Lucky for me, I'd never laid eyes on her manuscript because it was in the other instructor's pile.  I pointed out to her that there are a number of well-publicized cases in the news of pregnant women getting murdered for their fetuses, so the premise is hardly original.  I also pointed out, as I have here, that a premise is not a plot.  Had I reproduced her story scene by scene, that would be plagiarism.  But a premise that's all over the news, a premise that can be wrapped up in one sentence, is not something you can call all your own.  If she had sued, I would certainly have won.  Nevertheless, I'd have had to pay legal fees and the emotional turmoil would have made my life hell.

Every published author needs to worry about such accusations, which is why so many of us avoid reading unpublished, unsold manuscripts.  I know of one bestselling author who read an acquaintance's manuscript and later got sued for "stealing the idea."  Her literary agent has since forbidden her to read any more unpublished manuscripts. 

If you're an unpublished author, I want to reassure you that no one in New York is out to plagiarize your story.  You don't need to type "Copyright by John Doe" on your manuscript; your work is your work, and just by the act of creating it, it belongs to you.  If by chance your novel is a great read, no editor will ask someone else to take the credit.  Why make another (probably higher-paid) writer re-do the story when it's already written?  The editor would rather draw up a contract and sign you as her writer.  She'll be thrilled she's discovered a hot new talent with a hot new book.  

The last thing she wants to do is ruin that relationship and steal from you.