why stealing an “idea” is no big deal — until it is



My ex-husband and I once had lunch with filmmaker James Cameron (who was one of the few people allowed to drive my ex’s McLaren F1 in the years that he had it). Over the course of the meal — I remember I had the gnocchi, and Cameron remarked on how I could eat that dish and remain slender because I was young, and I should be sure to appreciate such a marvelous ability — my ex laid out his ideas for a science-fiction film (it might have been a trilogy).

That was not the purpose of the lunch — my ex was seizing the moment — but Cameron listened with a patient half-smile that suggested people do this to him all the time.

When my ex was finished, Cameron said, “Sounds like something you should do yourself.”

This appealed to my ex. He nodded and said, “Maybe I will.”

There’s a mindset in this culture that seems to operate from a sense of scarcity when it comes to ideas. People ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” instead of “How long have you been working at the craft?” or even “Where do you not get your ideas?”

I’ve attended workshops where the first question expressed to the teacher (after “How do I get an agent?”) goes something like, “How can we be sure that no one here is going to steal our ideas?”

Strangers approach published writers and say, “I have this idea, if you help me write it, we can split the royalties fifty-fifty” as if they’re offering up a gift.

But in his blog chief strategy officer Mike Myatt — whose company is known for innovation — has some harsh words to say about ideas:

Ideas in and of themselves do not constitute a philosophy, principle, or strategy. An idea is not synonymous with a competitive advantage, an idea is not necessarily a sign of creativity, an idea does not constitute innovation, and as much as some people wish it was so, an idea is certainly not a business. To the chagrin of many reading this post, ideas in and of themselves are nothing more than unrefined, random thoughts. Ideas on their own accord are really quite useless. The truth can often times be harsh and difficult to hear, but it is nonetheless the truth.

Ideas are a dime a dozen…take a moment and reflect on all the ideas you’ve spawned over the years, or the many ideas that have been birthed by your friends, family, and professional associates and you’ll quickly see that most of them never got lift-off. The problem is that most ideas never get implemented, and moreover even the best ideas when improperly implemented can cause great harm. You see, while creativity is a clearly a valuable asset, unbridled creativity where random, disparate ideas abound outside of a sound decisioning and execution framework will create distraction and chaos much more often than they will lead to innovation.

He is of course setting this within the context of business, but the message can apply equally to fiction writers.

The magic is not in the idea, which is probably nowhere near as original as you think it is.

The magic is in the execution of the idea.

But people seem to believe that ideas are rare, and the ability to execute, not so much (after all, what is art but self-expression? Why should it take years to learn how to express yourself? There are no rules in art!)

Give the same idea to ten different writers, and you’ll get ten wildly different novels (and of varying quality).

Execution is about everything that you bring — your mind, your experience, your creative practice and skillset — to bear on the idea, and whether you trust yourself enough to follow through with it.

Ideas are everywhere. They’re bobbing around in the culture. You give your kid an unusual name, and later discover that fifteen kids in his kindergarten class had parents with that exact same idea.

We’re wired into each other that way; we can’t help it; stuff transmits across the invisible cosmic network. Ideas in and of themselves refuse to be owned. They want to be free, dammit.

Execution is where the idea merges with you — when the idea becomes part of you — and that is when you own it. Whether you own it well or badly is another question entirely.

But that’s when no one can steal it from you. And if they do, it’s called ‘plagiarism”.

Nov 6, 2009

14 comments · Add Yours

Remember that Cameron was sued by Harlan Ellison for stealing the idea for Terminator from Ellison’s story “Demon with a Glass Hand.” They settled, and Ellison was acknowledged in the closing credits, although not given a story credit per se.


You are so right. Months ago, I was so worried about posting anything to my online critique group or even privately via email that I realized I was being stupid. How was I going to become a better writer and get an honest critique and edit of my manuscript without having someone read it! So I kinda threw that idea out the window.


It can be tough, though, showing your work, whether you’re afraid someone’s going to steal it or laugh at it. It can take just as much guts to show it as it did to write it…But you’re right, showing it to people is part of the gig.


I didn’t know that….I haven’t read the story, so maybe I shouldn’t say anything, but writers steal from other writers all the time, it’s called “being inspired by”…Either it was totally blatant, or Ellison was being a crank. :)

I was really struck by a case of plagiarism from a few years ago — an MFA student at Yale? or Princeton? took a short story he found online and rewrote it in his own voice and style and submitted it as part of his thesis. He was a star of the program and had a summer gig teaching somewhere, which he lost when one of the school’s reporters exposed him (somehow she got suspicious, and went through the manuscript typing entire phrases into the Google search bar until she got to a section he had more or less left alone).


Related to this, friends have asked me from time to time why I don’t try to write spec scripts for TV shows I like (ala Ronald D. Moore–who made a career out of one episode of Star Trek). Besides being flattered by the suggestion that I could even have a shot at it, I’m just not interested.

I just cannot get into someone else’s world or write for their characters. Though it is their initial “idea” and I can make it partially my own, I’d really rather not. My stuff may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s mine. (Not sure that was totally on topic, but it came to mind.)


Someone should do a study of people who suspect that something is plagiarized. That’s a sixth sense that I absolutely don’t have. Although, having seen Wendy Wasserman’s play Third recently, it does make me wonder whether there’s more going in the relationship between a writer who plagiarizes and the person who suspects them than meets the eye.


I’ve had people lift gorgeous lines from my work–irritating at first, ultimately flattering. More importantly: eeeew, James Cameron, get your nose out of my gnocchi. Shanna


There’s a touch — just a touch — of inspired-by similarity between my first novel BLOODANGEL and the first episode or so of HEROES — I noticed it and thought, Am I nuts? and then one of my blog readers picked up on it as well — and then a baby nurse who worked for us mentioned (out of nowhere) that she had also worked for one of the creators of the show and saw my book on his bookshelf (nannies and baby nurses in this town have worked for everybody and have all sorts of stories, including who is a total bitch and who is very sweet and who has a very strict policy about NEVER having the kids seen with the nannies in public, only with her. but I digress). If that’s true, I find it very cool….I think it’s the whole scarcity vs abundance thing again…There’s more (and better) where that came from….And obviously whoever stole lines from your work couldn’t come up with stuff on their own. Sad.


This is going more off-topic, but I remember going to my first writer’s conference and attending a workshop led by a novelist who spent 15 years writing for TV and was now trying to be a novelist again. He regretted, he said, “letting his novel career wither on the vine” for the exciting, fast-paced and lucrative world of TV, because as much as he enjoyed the TV years, at the end of the day what have you done except a bunch of TV episodes that nobody remembers. It’s not like you can point to books on a shelf (although I guess now you can have the DVDs, at least if the show’s any good) and say, “That’s my body of work right there.”


(Ah…looks like my prior attempt at this got eaten by gremlins).

Anyway–I think Mike Myatt is right, and you’re right about how that applies directly to writing. Execution is everything. Your post brought to mind another Harlan anecdote, as told by Dan Simmons (I hope you’ll forgive the lengthy copypasta):

Harlan Ellison once described to me his idea for the gestation period for a story – or any piece of writing: Harlan suggests that it’s like having this little motor, flashing-light thingee that you’ve created, but rather than putting it on show, you just pitch it into the swamp of the unconscious that every real writer depends upon. Down there under the algae scum in that swamp, the little idea-machine – useless by itself – begins to connect to other things already already lying in the dark. Writers are the ultimate scavengers. As Henry James (a friend of Harlan’s from the old days, I think) once said – “A writer is a man on whom nothing is lost.” Walking along the boggy shore, the writer finds new things to toss in – a human skeleton, a 1948 Buick V-8 engine, a worn Stetson, a 3-gallon vat of carbolic acid, part of the wooden case for a 1932 Philco floor console radio, some used junkie hypodermics, a chewed-red deer’s leg separated from the carcass, iPod earbuds – and all the time your original flashing, blinking thingee-idea is down there melding, joining, connecting, growing. Finally, often when you least expect it, this . . . THING . . . pulls itself up out of the swamp scum and comes lurching and dragging its parts and killing blades through the primordial ooze and onto dry land.

That’s when you can start writing about it.

The beginning writer, on the other hand, not even knowing he’s going off half-cocked, throws himself into writing about his little dime-store flashing, blinking thingee-idea and then wonders why no one wants to read about it.

Ignoring for the moment the question of what constitutes a “real” writer…my hard drive is littered with unfinished works, and most them are built upon various Big Ideas that were either too insubstantial to actually support a story or beyond my abilities to craft a story around. It took me a long time to figure out that being clever isn’t enough.


James Cameron seems like quite an interesting fellow. I recently read this article, and I felt like it really gave me a lot of insight into his story telling style / life:



That is an AWESOME anecdote, and I love the image. It’s like the Terminator meets Frankenstein’s monster meets the Swamp Thing.

I think we all — or at least many of us — go through a period where we overemphasize the importance of ‘clever’. Maybe because ‘clever’ and ‘witty’ are things that leap out of a successful story, when the true reason why the story is successful has to do with emotional impact and how the writer was able to create that through craft. Which is more subtle and difficult and nowhere near as sexy.

Also, I think it’s good and natural to leave some things unfinished, so long as you’re not doing it out of habit…If you’re reading a book and it bores you past page 50 or 75, why not toss it aside and move on to something else? If a story isn’t working, why not take the lessons learned and the best bits of the material and recycle them into something else? Life is too short. (Or, as someone recently told me, life is too long…)


I’ve always thought Cameron was a master storyteller — I learned a lot (and still do) from watching Terminator, Terminator 2, and Aliens, how he structured those stories and creates complex, rounded characters that you care about. I also appreciate how he writes women — Linda Hamilton in T2, in those days still years before Buffy and Joss Whedon, was exciting, shocking, and a gift to young women like me who wanted a sexy, kick-ass heroine to live vicariously through (and would go on to turn the vampire urban fantasy genre into a phenomenon).

And thank you for the article — I enjoyed it & posted it on my Facebook page. :)

Plus I can’t wait for Avatar.



  1. Sunday Wash Up, 15th November « Shack's Comings and Goings

Add your comment