Write It Sideways

Can You Prevent Writers from Stealing Your Stories?

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 My issue is how do you keep someone from “re-writing” or stealing your unpublished works?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.