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Today I've been dealing with a guy who feels I used his idea for a recently published story of mine. (Just to be clear: I didn't.) Anyhow, it seems that this guy has a similar setup for a novel he's been working on, and someone who read his novel and heard about my story wrote to him to say it looked suspicious, and the third-party guy thought I had this similar-story-guy in my summer SF Writing Workshop (I didn't - he was in Kij's Novel Writing Workshop, so I never saw the book, outline, or any of that).

So I wrote to the similar-story-guy to clear things up, and now it appears that he thinks I'm a liar and a thief.

Egad, Charlie Brown.

He went from accusatory and "shocked" at my taking his idea to passive-aggressive a-hole during the course of the conversation. I feel I could have handled this better, but at least I did delete irritated phrases before sending the messages. Ahem.

As I publish more and teach more writers, I expect this kind of situation will come up more frequently. I imagine that John Scalzi hears from half a dozen writers every day with similar accusations.

Writers: Have you had to deal with such situations? If so, how did you handle it? I'd like to be the paragon of gentlemanly and instructive without telling the accusor to piss off.

Thanks,
Chris

Comments

( 50 comments — Leave a comment )
sartorias
Apr. 10th, 2012 11:07 pm (UTC)
Eugh. Not yet, but I've heard of this crap. Usually it's addressed to someone off whom they are attempting to make scads of $$$ (like the various lawsuits against Rowling.)
mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 12:37 am (UTC)
Yeah, I'm not really worried about his suing me for profits on a single story, but it's still unhappy-making to hear such things. And one day we shall all write something that makes us SUPER RICH BWAHAHAHAHA! and will have to deal with it, right?
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mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 12:39 am (UTC)
You're totally right about just not dealing with it. Looking back, I wish that's how I handled it. I'm not worried about his suing, but if he does, lawyers it is. Geebus.

Something to think about should I become in a position where I could "spill coins everywhere if they shake you like a piggy bank" - love that phrase!
pendamuse
Apr. 10th, 2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
You deal with it by not dealing with it. You don't acknowledge it, you don't give tit attention, you let the person in question cry and rend their clothing. Every denial is admittance. You'll never convince them you didn't steal their notes, or peek over their shoulders or use witchcraft to pick the plot from their unfulfilled dreams. You will always be the reason they never made it as an author.

Because, you know - writers only have one good idea...

You can't steal ideas - ideas are not plots, characters, entire stories. All writers wade in the same creative pool and we often have similar ideas - cannibal Santas, Creepy Kids, Zombies affect on society - but it's the story, the writing, that makes it unique.

Hi, by the way.
bogwitch64
Apr. 11th, 2012 12:39 am (UTC)
Yeah, what pendamuse said.
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bammba_m
Apr. 11th, 2012 12:33 am (UTC)
Okay, not a writer, but I did go to hear Orson Scott Card speak at a book store years and years ago AND there was some idiot-nerd in the audience who thought he would stump the author by saying he stole some tech idea from another story.
His response was something like "there's a menu of tech" and you can pick and choose the tech you want and it's not considered stealing someone else's idea not even a little bit.

Point is, that guy looked like a giant d-bag, OSC looked amazingly smart and clever. My takeaway from that is that experience is that if you are composed and rational, the raving lunatics will make themselves obvious.
Of course, a couple years later I heard things about OSC that make him less likable, but that's less to do with him stealing the ideas of others and more to do with him being a bigot. (the takeaway from *that* is that the less you know about performers/writers/entertainers, the more you can just enjoy their talent and never have that enjoyment tainted)

Anyway. Rambling. You're awesome, they suck. By asking this question you demonstrate you're the better person.
mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 12:47 am (UTC)
I did (stupidly) point out to him that SF is a big conversation, and lots of authors write about similar subjects to further the conversation. He just read that as my acknowledging I had read his book and was responding to the idea. (He had trouble reading what I was saying and picked-and-chose just what he wanted to hear.)

When I was in grad school, I read Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men and Star Maker, and these books depressed me because I felt he had written about all the ideas there were in those two books. Well, sure he did, but he treated most of the ideas in such a superficial way that it leaves lots of room for the rest of us to write about those things.

Even if this guy's novel is set in the same time, after the same events, and uses the same setup, I'll bet my story and his novel have nothing in common.

Even so, ugh.

Thank you for the kind words.
tmseay
Apr. 11th, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
You may not even remember this, Chris, but I actually did steal an idea from you once. Sort of. We were at ICFA when you mentioned a half-developed thought about a story that you either wanted to write or had written. About a year later I had an idea for a story and wrote it, and about six months after that I realized that my story had clearly been sparked, in the back of my mind, by the idea you'd described.

So I told you, and your response, as I recall, was pretty much, "Oh, you went a completely different direction than I would have anyway."

Which I mention for two reasons: first, because although you may not know how to respond to an accusation that you stole someone else's idea, you provided an excellent model of how to react to the news that someone stole your idea. And second... you know what? Our stories really did go in totally different directions. Nothing really in common except an initial germ. It was a great notion, but I could just as easily have "stolen" an idea from any book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble and developed it in a different direction and nobody ever would have noticed or minded. Holly Lisle once shared some interesting thoughts along these lines: http://hollylisle.com/how-to-legally-and-ethically-steal-ideas/.

Broad point being, I think that, except in cases of outright plagiarism, even "stealing ideas" is a perfectly common part of writing, especially in a genre where each work is in dialogue with every other work. What, does anyone think that Spiderman is a totally original story? (And of course you didn't steal any ideas to begin with!)
mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 01:19 am (UTC)
Those are really good points, Thomas: Plagiarism is a much different animal than "idea theft," and ideas are only seeds that grow under the care we provide.

Thanks for the blog link - good stuff, there!

Great seeing you, by the way. Every so often, in the middle of a wonderful conversation, I wish I could text you to teleport in to join us.
steve98052
Apr. 11th, 2012 08:31 am (UTC)

I have an "idea file" with dozens of one-line summaries of ideas that I could develop into screenplays (or prose fiction), if I got my butt off Livejournal and Facebook and actually wrote them out. If a situation comes up in conversation that reminds me of something in the idea file, I'll share it freely; if someone wants to realize the idea as a book, screenplay, or whatever, it's theirs. I would hope that I'd get a little acknowledgement, if they think the idea is worth something, but I wouldn't claim they owe me credit.

With rare exceptions, ideas are cheap. The artistry is taking an idea and realizing it as a complete story. Occasionally one comes up with an idea so irresistible that the story writes itself once the idea comes into the author's head. For example, I would imagine that Arthur C Clarke pounded out the first draft of "The Nine Billion Names of God" about as fast as he could type. Likewise, Isaac Asimov no doubt wrote "The Last Question" as fast as he could type (but that's how he wrote everything). But such ideas are rare, and any writer who gets one is likely to feel compelled to write it – and once it's written it's too late for anyone else to steal it.

So what do you do? It sounds like you tried to do what I would have tried to do. First, I'd point out that I had no knowledge of the supposedly stolen idea, and even if I had known about it the real work is realizing the idea, not thinking it up. Then, in support of the point that ideas are cheap, I'd point to the fact that copyright law offers no protections for ideas, only their realization.

But that obviously didn't do the job with this character, so my reaction would have been wrong for the situation. I concur with others who replied that ignoring the guy would have been the best course of action.

One new thought I can add to this discussion is a means of protecting yourself against legal nonsense, in the event that someone wants to bring lawyers into the picture. First, when you're writing, save lots back-up copies of early drafts of your writings (and your idea files, if you have them). Disk space is cheap, and having a collection of drafts proves your work is yours – and they're more reliable than any word processor's "undo" feature. Second, when dealing with beginners in classes, hand out a quick summary of copyright law that emphasizes that ideas are cheap, and the hard work is expressing them, and spend a few minutes advising them to take a look at the hand-out.

mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 01:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I have a box of story ideas that gets bigger over time, even as I write new things.

I do keep old drafts just in case I want to compare versions, but in this case that wouldn't help, as he apparently started his novel before I started my story.
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curieuse
Apr. 11th, 2012 10:02 am (UTC)
I'm sorry you're dealing with this at all. I'm sure it felt bad to him to hear echoes of what he wished he had done in what you successfully did. The fact that he's taking out his own disappointment on you is beyond regrettable, and perhaps in a better mindset one day he'll be embarrassed by his behavior. Either way, what an unneeded hassle for you, friend. So sorry.
mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 01:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you for your kind words. Yes, I know the frustration when I read something (or see a movie or show) that does something I wish I'd done.
gryphonrose
Apr. 11th, 2012 12:46 pm (UTC)
Can't say I've ever been there, amigo--I don't think anyone's ever accused me of stealing their story, which is a bit surprising, really. But I think if they did I'd just politely point out that ideas are a dime a dozen and parallel development happens all the time, and tell them I'm sorry they think I somehow stole their idea/story/material but that certainly isn't the case. There's nothing more you can do, really, but stay calm and polite and not let them bait you or make you lose your temper. Because, honestly, unless they have some kind of proof and take you to court the worst that can happen is it can damage your reputation--and that's a lot more likely from blowing your top at them than from them running around saying you ripped them off.
mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 01:26 pm (UTC)
I doubt he'll sue, because - what? He'd get all the profits from my short story? But, yeah, I had the same feeling and finally withdrew from the online argument and just vented here ;-)
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tessagratton
Apr. 11th, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC)
What bullshit.

That is my serious, long-thought-out response.

And: some famous artist said something like "all art is stealing."
mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
:-D

And your icon is perfect.

Speaking of stealing ideas, I saw Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Hastings last weekend. I really must read that one day.
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siro_gravity
Apr. 11th, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
Wow! What a douche from hell.

I cannot even imagine being accused of stealing somebody else's idea.

But when you think about it, it's kinda like ideas are all "out there" and there is a lot of overlap in all kinds of art -not just writing. We are all swimming around in the same sea of ideas, so it's not surprising that others' ideas connect with our ideas.

I have no doubt you handled it in a gentlemanly fashion.
mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 04:18 pm (UTC)
So true about ideas being "out there," and we just develop something from them. There are zeitgeists in our cultures, in our times, heck - in our collective subconscious, if you're of that ilk. Humans all across the globe - even before modern communications technologies - developed the same kinds of ideas and technologies at about the same time because those were the things on the minds of people at that time in our development.

When I'm writing - when it's going really well, anyhow - I often have that feeling of being out of control of what's appearing on the page, and that's awesome! When they say, "The story wrote itself," that's not entirely true, but a good story gets control of the storyteller rather than the other way around.

I appreciate your confidence in my gentlemanliness, but if I could go back and handle it differently, I would!
m_danson
Apr. 11th, 2012 09:07 pm (UTC)
I'm going to weigh in with a different perspective.

To me, what you've described looks like a perfectly normal conflict where both parties have had something that matters to them threatened and they are fighting back to protect what matters to them.

It sucks to feel accused. It sucks to feel robbed. It just sucks, and when things suck it's hard not to react. We bring our worst selves to the table when we fight. From the sound of it you would like to bring your best self to the table.

You can do that.

Consider what you want to get out of this situation and then consider your options.

Ignoring the accusation is an option.
Lawyers are an option.
Responding, in any manner, is an option.
Writing a blog post about it is an option.

If you don't want to ignore it and you want to have a productive interaction, then ozarque has quite a few entries on verbal self-defense that might be useful.

There are also quite a few resources for dealing with conflict [1] [2]** which may be useful in figuring out how to approach and think about the situation.

**Not a difinitive or complete list. I don't have my bookshelf here at the moment.

mckitterick
Apr. 11th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
This is terrific advice, thanks. A lot of what I'm looking for with this post is advice on how to deal with this kind of situation without making things worse.
(no title) - m_danson - Apr. 12th, 2012 04:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - steve98052 - Apr. 14th, 2012 06:57 am (UTC) - Expand
skyflame
Apr. 12th, 2012 02:07 am (UTC)
You really want to mess him up? Introduce him to a Markov generator.
mckitterick
Apr. 12th, 2012 10:52 am (UTC)
I once published a poem that the computer had "written" - actually, the printer came up with something that wasn't anything like the poem I was trying to print. I revised it a bit and sold that "accident" where I couldn't pub the original I'd written....
(no title) - skyflame - Apr. 12th, 2012 01:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
steve98052
Apr. 14th, 2012 06:53 am (UTC)
If this were Facebook, I'd click "Like".
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