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This week’s question comes from a recent graduate who is dipping her toes in the freelance waters: “I have some hesitations about putting my work out there. If I have a story idea to pitch, how do I protect it? I don't want to put out what I think is a great idea and have that publication steal it and have a staff writer do it. So, what do I do?”
U.S. copyright does not protect ideas, although it may protect the way ideas area expressed.
However, for the most part, editors are not in the business of stealing writers’ ideas, says Leslie Levine, freelance writer and author of “Wish It, Dream It, Do It: Turn the Life You’re Living Into the Life You Want.”
Levine says most ideas are not as original as the writer thinks they are. It is, rather, what a writer can bring to that idea – the angles, the experts, etc. – that make it unique.
“It’s up to the writer to come up with something that can only be done -- and done well -- by that writer,” she adds. “If a pitch is anemic (short on substance) but has the germ of a good story, the editor might run with it, only in the wrong direction.”
Linda Formichelli, a full-time freelance writer who has written for more than 130 magazines and websites and has co-authored eight books, agrees.
“I teach a magazine writing class where students come up with ideas,” says Formichelli, “and it's amazing how many of them come up with the same ideas – and, of course, they all think their ideas are totally unique.”
If you are certain your idea was stolen, and if you can prove it, you can politely ask for an idea fee, says Formichelli. “I say ‘politely’ because you never know if the magazine outright stole your idea, or if somehow there was a mix-up and your idea was assigned to the wrong person.”
You should also cross that publication off your pitching list, adds Formichelli, “unless they come forth with a pretty good idea fee and apology.”
Levine, on the other hand, wouldn’t necessarily ask for an idea fee.
“I would try to learn from this experience and then move on,” she says. “We’re all selling something, whether it’s our own ideas, our writing, whatever. A little diplomacy can go a long way. That doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t look out for herself, but, like other areas of life, it’s good to know how and when to pick your battles.”
Have you been burned pitching an idea? Tell us about it in the comments below. What did you learn from it, and what advice do you have for other freelancers?
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