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Jan. 10th, 2008

branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

Say to any writer “I have a great idea for a book. How about if you just write it down, and we can split the proceeds?” Depending on their temperament, the writer in question will either turn red and start to steam or laugh themselves sick.

This is, of course, because the part of writing that takes the most work is the writing itself. Unsurprisingly. Ideas are easy to come by, but getting the words down on the page in the right form to tell a story, especially a lively and engaging story, takes work, experience, determination and more work. Writing isn’t just having a neat idea, it’s getting a story to coalesce around the idea, complete with transitions and motivations and all the parts that aren’t neat ideas but rather the bones of narrative. Any writer knows this.

Given that, I find it a bit surprising that both professional and amateur writers will carry on in equal measure about writing being stolen and ideas being stolen.

Now, if you’ve gone to the work of the writing and then had someone scan your writing and send copies to the whole world, or pass your writing off as theirs, I can certainly see hollering and quick-drawing your lawyer. That’s weeks or months or years of work at stake.

To go to the same amount of trouble over an idea rather lacks proportion.

Being scooped in a commercial arena, now, that could be cause for agitation, yes. If, let us say, I were a writer of Star Wars tie-in novels and had come up with this great idea for how to get Mara Jade her groove back, and I found out that some other tie-in writer had sold the notion to Lucas before me, and I had reason to think that the other writer first got the notion from me… I’d be hollering indeed.

But if I found someone else writing the parts or the way I didn’t, even with characters or worlds I have already done up once, well, if they want to put in the weeks or months or years to write it differently than I did, that’s their work and their time, and no skin off my nose.

The whole notion of stealing an idea has only limited applicability. For, e.g., George Lucas to insist that no one but him (or his minions) can write about the Jedi Order, forever and ever amen, is pointless. You’d think he had invented the notion of mystical orders, or manipulable life energy, or even mentor-student sexual subtext. And, I hate to break it, but that would be D, none of the above. So what exactly would someone be stealing?  One noun phrase?

Another favorite example, equally ridiculous, is for a fic writer to complain that a canon writer stole her idea. First of all, the illogic makes my brain hurt, because if writing about other people’s ideas is an offense, then the fic writer sinned first (and so did Lucas). And on top of that, fic is non-commercial and could not have made money by implementing the idea first. But, more importantly, the idea hasn’t been stolen. It’s still there, still available, there’s nothing stopping the fic writer from still writing it.

No two people’s weeks or months or years of work, getting the words to do what they want, are ever going to produce the same story. No other story about the Jedi will be Lucas’s story–however much he tries to make it by choosing plot-based, character-weak authors to carry on. This is why ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted–only the expressions of ideas, only those months of work and words on a page.

I can see being protective of the work, the sweat and hair-tearing and effort. But the ideas? And maybe a handful of proper nouns? I know of no authors who write any kind of derivative work save out of the desire to make it different somehow–to make things move and change. So this howling about stealing ideas really seems to miss a critical point.

Even aside from that point, though, no one gets to have it both ways. Either ideas are sacred and the offer to split the take evenly between idea-maker and writer is more than fair… or they aren’t and it isn’t.

So which is it going to be?

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