When Someone Steals Your Idea

What should you do when someone steals your idea? It really is inevitable…or at least, it seems to be inevitable. You have a brilliant idea and before you know it, you see that another artist has beat you to the punch. But did they really steal your idea? With social media these days, it’s possible depending on how much you put out there.

So you happen to find someone’s work that closely mirrors what your idea was. What do you do? Do you blow a gasket and go off on them, calling them out on social media? My suggestion is, no. Despite how upset you are, I advise a cooler head.

First of all, you cannot copyright an idea.

Content can be copyrighted, but not ideas. And as far as ideas go, there really aren’t any new ideas. What artists do is express different takes on old ideas or concepts. In most cases, ideas spin off of already existing ideas, topics, products, stories, etc. So be clear on whether or not it was an idea that you that you think was stolen or your actual content. If it’s actual content, can you prove that it was stolen?

Knowing your rights as an artist is important. Knowing what you’re signing with freelance contracts is equally important. (Photo Credit: 123RF.com Copyright: Freddy Cahyono)

This is where it gets tricky. If you’re a freelance artist, many contracts you may sign with a hiring company might stipulate that they own your work, not you. Double check your rights.

Older generations will remember the idea of the “poor man’s copyright.”

An artist, writer, musician, inventor, etc. comes up with a brilliant idea, jots all the details down, seals it in an envelope, and mails it to themselves. The stamped postdate proves the date that the creator had the idea predating anyone else. Clever idea, but the problem is, it doesn’t work by federal copyright protection laws.

However, copyright legislation which took effect in 1978, states that all creations are automatically copyrighted from the moment of creation, so long as they are “fixed” in a recognizable way. This means the work needs to be registered. You can do this by going to the Library of Congress website and filling out the electronic form and paying the fee.

Honestly, I don’t know of any artists who do this. Unless you’re an artist who has come up with a new comic book with well-developed characters and storyline, I can’t imagine any artist who does this artwork by artwork. With artwork however, if you’re posting work in progress, which many artists do on social media (including myself), that is visual proof that you’re the artist behind the work.

With art it can be difficult to prove anything.

If another person legitimately has stolen your idea, he or she only has to change something minor for them to claim they didn’t steal from you. Take for example, Vanilla Ice who lifted the bass line of Queen’s hit Under Pressure. Right or wrong, how are you going to prove it? It might be easier for writers who find their work stolen word for word. In any case, approaching the supposed thief with calm and tact is your best bet.

Going ballistic is never beneficial. (Photo Credit: 123RF.com Copyright: Antonio Guillem)

I’ve seen artists totally lose their cool and call someone out on social media only to have the situation blow up in their face. They end up looking like the hater and rather foolish. If it’s obviously your work, approach the situation calmly. Private message them and ask them to either take your work down or tag you as the artist to give you credit. Most people will comply without a fight. If not, you are totally within your rights to seek other action. But keep in mind that all legal action costs a significant amount of money. It’s probably better to cut your losses and move on to the next brilliant idea.

In speaking with a number of artist friends and reading countless articles on the subject, their number one bit of advice is to keep your ideas to yourself. Basically, no matter how excited you are about this fabulous idea…keep your mouth shut!

In conclusion…

Remember that there are no 100% brand new ideas. People the world over are having ideas all the time, as in every second of every day. It’s not unreasonable for another person to come up with the same idea as you. Also, people are not looking for brand new ideas. They’re looking for new concepts of pre-existing ideas. What’s your take on things? That’s what most people are interested in. And finally, taking legal action costs money. The best way to keep your ideas safe is by not talking about them. And if it does come to having to confront someone, do so privately with a calm head and try to take the emotion out of it.

Here’s hoping that you have to deal with this as little as possible!

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Myra Naito

Myra Naito

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Freelance copywriter who is passionate about art and fitness. Check out my art blog at mnatiodesigns.com/blog/ or follow me @mnaito_fineart .