Here’s another reader question from my inbox, which might interest other writers who are wondering whether or not it’s wise to post their writing online:
[A]fter reading an article that suggested tweeting different parts of your story/book (which I have heard before)..I have always had an issue with that concept. My issue is how do you keep someone from “re-writing” or stealing your unpublished works? The one line that I put on Twitter may be the Coup de Grace to my novel! But if someone else puts their work out first then where does that leave me?
Can You Prevent Other Writers from Stealing Your Stories?
In Be (Slightly) Afraid of Posting Your Work Online, Chuck Sambuchino of Guide to Literary Agents writes:
[Y]ou cannot copyright your ideas or concepts, so by putting stuff online, you are vulnerable… Agents and editors don’t steal stuff; writers steal stuff… I do not advise posting fiction excerpts online just to see what happens. I have seen ideas get taken before, and I always advise writers on the safe side.
Sambuchino goes on to give an example of how a writer at a conference gave away the high-concept idea for his book and someone else in the audience mumbled that they were going to take the idea.
So, we’ve established that ideas cannot be copyrighted. Once you’ve put your ideas out there on the web or told other writers about them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it if someone decides to hijack your story.
That means, if you have a high-concept premise, you may not want to share it with others unless you’re submitting a finished manuscript to a literary agent.
On the other hand, even if someone did steal the idea or premise of your novel, there’s little chance that they will write the book in such a way as to make it recognizably similar to your own.
Jane Friedman wrote an interesting article back in April called Stop Being Afraid of Posting Your Work Online. In it, she outlines the benefits of writers sharing their writing on the internet.
She makes some excellent points, so writers have to make up their own minds about whether or not posting work online is a strategy suited to their own circumstances.
But, I’ve experienced plagiarism first-hand, so I know people really do steal stuff from the internet.
While it’s unlikely someone will outrightly steal your story idea, rewrite it, and send it off to agents before you get a chance to do so yourself, if you’re worried about that happening, I’d refrain from sharing my work on the net.
Join the discussion
Vidya Sury says
What a completely relevant issue. I guess one has to constantly prowl the world wide web to check if someone else has already beaten you to publishing your own idea! I would certainly refrain from publishing “unpublished” work online in parts – especially when it really is so easy to “rewrite” and publish. Have seen that happen with ghost writers all the time. Shudder!!
I wouldn’t go as far as to say you need to prowl around for people who’ve already published your idea. In fact, even if they did, you’d likely never know about it. But I would be careful of how much you post and how much of your plot you give away.
An interesting article. I do have a writing blog, in which I share, flash fiction, poems and short stories – I have shown one very small excerpt of my novel there,(which has now been submitted to a publisher). But I think it unlikely that the idea will be stolen as I was very careful to choose just a small piece that was read out on the radio and included the radio snippet as well.
Most of what I share I am not going to do anything with, or if I have, for example I show a poem about Dali that was published earlier this year – I state that this has been published. I certainly would not share large sections of a novel I am writing or excerpts that give away the plot. I also show the copyright symbol which one has to hope others will respect. Having said all that, I find sharing these unimportant pieces to be very valuable in the form of feedback especially from other writers.
Sounds like you’re making sensible decisions about what/how much to post online. You’re getting the best of both worlds!
Eeleen Lee says
Agree with Chuck- be very afraid of posting your work online.
Melissa Donovan says
Ooh, this is shaky ground. I do find that there are naive writers who go around posting their work recklessly. On the other hand, I have encountered far more who refuse to share it at all. I was once approached by a prospective client who wanted to hire me to critique his screenplay. In the end, he decided against it because he didn’t want anyone to steal his idea. He actually said that it was a “great idea” and that he didn’t even want to send it to any filmmakers for fear they would rewrite it and make the movie anyway. So, what’s he going to do with it other than keep it in a drawer somewhere?
I find that a lot of writers think they have the only great idea in the world and their unwillingness to put it out there prevents them from ever getting it published or read by anyone. It’s a fine line, a very fine line, between being overly cautious (paranoid) and reckless.
Well said! I completely agree that some writers are way too paranoid about someone else stealing their ideas.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing a small amount of your writing online, but there’s really nothing you can do if someone does decide to steal your work.
I posted a previously published piece on my blog after it placed in a literary contest, thinking the previous history would help its security. Comments?
I have a question related to your article that wasn’t explicitly brought up.
If I were to post an entire short story or poem – not just an idea here, but a concrete piece of writing – and someone were to plagiarize that, would I have any legal ground or way to combat that if they got it published before I managed to?
(Obviously this is coming from the position of one who is not a published or established author (yet), but nevertheless, I think it’s something important to know…)
Yes, Mike, if someone plagiarized your work in full, you could easily prove that the piece was first yours, even if it’s not copyrighted. For example, you would have a dated, archived copy on your computer, and you would have the forum/blog post on which you shared your work.
But, I have to say that the likelihood of this happening is pretty slim, anyway. It would suck if it happened, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it unless it did.