A discussion on copyright

On Friday I blogged my views and personal policy on copyright, and explained why I don’t share much of my work online. It isn’t so much that I fear plagiarists, but that I want traditional publishers to feel satisfied that they are publishing previously unpublished work.

It raised some interesting discussions on Twitter so I thought I would write a bit of a postscript (or Post Scrotum as Aleister Crowley more amusingly restyled it).

A magpie
'Magpie' by pjoh

The thing that got me paranoid thinking was a conversation with @TheRedQ about the risk of ideas being stolen. My previous post was about the text rather than the idea, and the implications for future publication of posting it online. I have however been quite free and easy about ideas, putting pseudo-blurbs up for my projects, describing what they were about. @TheRedQ told me of a writing competition judge who was known as a magpie for stealing the ideas of entrants, and of a journalist friend whose article was rejected but rehashed by the newspaper he submitted to. She sent me a link to this American article on copyright that stresses ideas are not protected. She also told me to ‘try not to get too paranoid’. Ha.

(I’m presuming she’s a she, but you never know on the Internet.)

I raised this issue with @copyrightgirl, a copyright expert who I also presume is female, and she said “revealing your ideas before you’ve put them in motion is unwise if you want to make money from them”.

Of course I knew all this on one level. I know that ideas are not copyrightable and I know that there are unscrupulous people out there who sometimes steal them. But I hadn’t really thought much about what I reveal of my ideas online. How much is too much? I’ve recently put up some pages describing the bare bones of my novel. I don’t think what I’ve said about The Godless is concrete or distinct enough to steal. As for Resuscitating God, the one-liners about each character are fairly generic, but the overall notion of what unites them could constitute an idea worth nicking. But even if it was stolen, the execution would be very different as the important thing is the tone and character journeys rather than the connecting thread. Literary writing is really the art of trying to convey something ineffable that occurs only to the author. I’ll never be able to do that perfectly so nor will anyone else, even if they could read my mind. (It’s also the sort of idea that people can quite possibly have come up with independently, which is exactly why we can’t copyright ideas.)

Also, I’m just about to share a screenplay of mine on this website. As well as an accompanying blurb and synopsis, the text itself will of course reveal the idea in its entirety (and I think it’s a good one). Not much I can do about that, unless I don’t share it. Maybe the full text appearing online will prove its own protection. Even if it doesn’t legally protect the idea it does lay a creative claim to it.

As @SeanFlaim reminded me, there is a balance to be had, as the writing needs publicity, exposure creates demand and that demand can help enable me to make a living from it.

I think really my plan remains the same. I shall freely share little in the way of completed text, but will work to finish and submit things to publishers, broadcasters, websites and competitions, where I can then send people to read them. (Where on earth I shall find the time is the subject for another post.) In the meantime I shall try to drum up interest by giving the odd glimpse into what I’m working on, but with a new sense of caution not to reveal too much.

It’s a shame all these mundane practicalities get in the way of the fun of sharing creativity.

As always with these types of posts, I’m especially interested to hear from other writers and find out how you approach these issues and what you think of my approach. If any of you with an interest in law or copyright see this, I’m also very interested in your comments. While I’m being demanding, I’d also like to encourage you to raise your points on this page rather than Twitter as it widens the debate.

And idea magpies, if you’re reading – alright, we can scratch legal action off the list of threats in my last post, but the others still remain, and we’re talking a pretty scary type of clown.

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