Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Trust Issue #2--Manuscript Theft

In our last post we introduced the topic of trust in the publishing industry. We will discuss a variety of aspects of this in as much of an organized fashion as we can. However, we will also post as other pertinent related facets emerge. For example, the trust issue came up again this week in the context of a writer not trusting a potential agent to read his book because he thought the agent would either steal his book or its idea. This is an issue that has been discussed widely on boards, forums, and at conferences.

Is this a relevant concern, or just another writer’s self-imposed obstacle to success in the form of an urban legend?

I can kind of understand why a writer would worry about his/her work being stolen. It’s more than copyright infringement; it’s personal. For many writers, their books are a part of their being, an extension of their soul. To have someone else claim it as their own is like taking a part of the writer's life force. Also, for writers who have faced the struggle to get published and validated, to have a project taken from them is just one more way they are kept invisible in an industry where being known is almost everything.

As one writer recently stated, it would be easy to change a story around in the digital form and make it your own. Well, fortunately, it’s not that easy to do and get away with. A stolen book that finds success would be immediately recognized by the author, who has original files and such that would prove the work is his.

Can you imagine how much work it would take to change a complete manuscript to make it unrecognizable to the original author? It’s mind-boggling to even think about and far more effort than the common thief would want to expend. There are much easier ways to rip-off writers. Agents have a reputation to uphold so they would probably be the last people who would want to take someone else’s work. Who would be the first person suspected? Anyone who had your book, which would include the agent, of course.

Then there’s the issue of what work to steal. We know the difference between a good read and a bad one, but many times books we think are completely salable simply aren’t. So there comes the question, if agents were the type to steal someone’s work, whose work would we steal? That of those who are published, right? No, that doesn’t always work either. There’s no guarantee that just because you’ve been successful with one book, that everything you pen is salable and so a thief couldn’t rely on that.

No, even if an agent might be tempted, there are too many variables to make it very profitable. This is too subjective a business to make stealing manuscripts worth the time and effort it would take to do so. Can people take your idea? Yes, they can, but keep in mind we see the same ideas pop up from different writers all over the world independently on a regular basis.

Original thought is a commodity—a salable commodity. It is rare. If it weren’t, we’d be gazillionaires by now.

Most ideas come from exposure to other people, ideas, places, etc. The ones who should really be ticked are the ancient Greeks. They did so much thinking and philosophizing in the arts that almost every thought a modern writer has, they had first. Or did it first. Or tried it first. I don’t hear them complaining, though the fact they are dead might explain this. As for myself, if I want to have a novel of my own to sell, I’ll write one.


Patrick McNamara said...

I have heard of dumpster diving into agent's trash to find scripts, but it seems to be just an urban myth. It's more likely that a phoney agent might pull something so they can get ideas for TV and movies, especially when those scripts could make a million, but if that happened then there should have been at least one lawsuit reported. It's not that art theft doesn't occur (teachers have been know to sell ideas created by their students), but a writing theft would be just too obvious.

What's worse is when you've just written a manuscript for a story then Hollywood (or another writer) comes along and decides to make something similar to what you've written. It's hard to convince people that you didn't steal the idea, even though it was coincience. And coincidence seems far more common than plagerism.

Anonymous said...

The main reason I don't worry about agents or publishers stealing my work is that it is just easier and cheaper for them to buy it from me.

Anonymous said...

I don't worry about agents or other publishing professionals stealing manuscripts or ideas.

What does concern me, however, is the online "critique groups," "query crits" and "novel workshops," where the novel or at least its core idea is posted for anyone to see, before it is published. While I'm not paranoid about having my ideas stolen, I also don't feel the need to be overly loose with ideas and concepts in a business where ideas and concepts are commodities to be bought and sold. Yes, the execution is just as important as the concept, but still--why give away half the product for free?

Anthony said...

I would have to say it's probably not all that common for people to think this, considering this was the number 2 hit on "agent steal manuscript" on Google...and there's two comments. Just saying...