Members have told us that they’ve pitched an idea for an article, and a similar article turned up under someone else’s name. They say they wrote books about teenage vampires or nerdy supervillains, and then watched other people make millions from their plot lines. They think that copyright law should protect them.
In most cases, it can’t. Ideas, titles, methods, and facts—like the names of people living on Elm Street or ingredients in a recipe — can’t be copyrighted. Neither can character types, although sometimes they can be trademarked. (Gryffindor and Quidditch are trademarked, but not the concept of wizardry schools. Click here for a history of Harry Potter-based lawsuits.) If you tell your college roommate about your idea for a mystery series, and he writes a bestseller based on your concept, it’s just, well, sad.
If you can show that another writer used your exact words for a purpose that wasn’t criticism, parody, or a commentary relating to your work, you may have a case. Or you may not. Fair use isn’t well defined. Issues like this have to be decided in federal court, where filing a lawsuit is expensive. The NWU is advocating for the establishment of a copyright small claims court, but it has yet to be created.
It doesn’t hurt to register the copyright for your query letter or book proposal before submitting it to a publisher or agent. Certainly it’s wise to register any complete manuscript before sending it out. Some writers querying magazines or websites will ask them for a non-disclosure agreement. But while it’s unlikely that someone will rewrite your book, a publication stealing a journalist’s story idea is a frequent occurrence that’s hard to prevent. If it’s happened to you, tell us about it at firstname.lastname@example.org. There may be an angle we can pursue. We once got compensation for a journalist whose article idea was appropriated, but only because she had done considerable follow-up research at the publisher’s request.
Meanwhile, use discretion. And be prepared to move on.