“That text might have been plagiarised!”
That was the attention-grabbing headline of a bit of spam that recently popped into the United Ghostwriters inbox. It was selling plagiarism-detecting software. “What are you doing to protect United Ghostwriters from the effects of unwanted plagiarism?” it went on.
You’re preaching to the wrong choir, mate.
We don’t and won’t steal from other people; we’re capable of writing our own stuff, thanks. But let’s talk about plagiarism.
Call it what you will: plagiarism, passing off, idea theft – these are important issues and we take them very seriously. They can also be taken too seriously. Were I a clueless amateur, here is how I could, if I wanted, bring a case against a well-known and respected TV writer and producer.
Back in the mid-90s, Steven Moffat – now known for Press Gang, Coupling, Doctor Who, Sherlock and more – wasn’t nearly so advanced in his career. However, he and I had consecutive stories in a themed Doctor Who anthology; so, we needed to communicate to agree on a way the stories could be linked. We chatted one night on the phone.
I have absolutely no memory of what we talked about, other than the stories. But. At the time, I was working on my novel His Majesty’s Starship, which features amongst other things a future United Kingdom in space. “So, what else are you working on?” he might have asked. “Oh, just a novel about the UK in space,” I might have answered. “Oh?” he might have purred in his soft Scottish lilt. “Tell me more …”
And that might be how, fifteen years later, now writer and series producer for Doctor Who, Steven Moffat came to write an episode called “The Beast Below” which features the UK in space …
Do I believe that?
No. Not for one second.
Even if I did, it wouldn’t matter. His TV episode and my novel are very different in style, theme, plot and indeed subject matter. They are completely different entities, handling the whole idea of a UK in space in completely different ways. Here’s the thing: ideas can’t be plagiarised. (Which is lucky for me, as the inspiration for His Majesty’s Starship was a throwaway line in a Robert Heinlein novel about the Royal Space Force.)
And yet, when a potential client asked me to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before discussing their planned novel any further, I was happy to sign.
NDAs have their place, and it’s a very important one. Much of the information that passes through our hands at United Ghostwriters is very sensitive. We have ghostwritten autobiographies, whistleblowing exposés, technical manuals, business books … all featuring information which in the wrong hands, or released at the wrong time, could wreak havoc, or make someone or cost someone else a lot of money. We take NDAs very seriously.
Fortunately, in fiction, such fears are as baseless as my little Moffatt scenario above. Let me just set your mind at rest …
“Someone might steal my idea!”
Define ‘steal’. Someone might very well pick up your idea and run with it – and that’s great! That’s how writing develops. As I’ve said, that’s how His Majesty’s Starship came about. (The Heinlein work in the question was The Number of the Beast which, trust me, is very different.)
“That’s just inspiration. Someone might steal my exact idea!”
If a ghostwriter or agent or publisher thinks your idea, as is, could make a huge amount of money then why would they steal it from you and give it to someone else to write? Why not just let you write it and cut out the middleman?
“But, let’s be frank: I’m no one, just a beginner. No one will read my book, but in the hands of a more marketable author it could be a bestseller!”
And those more marketable authors – read: experienced, been around the block, know what they’re doing – are incapable of coming up with good ideas of their own? How do you think they became marketable? Steven Moffat did not get where he is by pinching ideas off other aspiring writers; he did it by hard work and being very good at what he does.
Anything that gets written down is automatically protected by copyright the moment the words hit the paper or screen. That isn’t protecting the idea, but your story isn’t about the idea. It’s about the words, the style, the imagery; all the things that make your story unique. All the things that make it the story you want to tell. That is what we do on your behalf.