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”.