It’s a common question I hear among writers, especially among those who are starting out in the long journey toward publication: “Will someone steal my book?” Or “my idea?” Or “my plot?” And so on.
Some writers are loath to show their work to a critique group or submit to an agent or editor, for fear that someone will take their title or idea or writing and pass it off as their own. Believe it or not, the estimable Steve Laube (He Who Insists I Call Him That) has had people slide a Nondisclosure Agreement across the table at a writers conference, saying, “Please sign this NDA before I pitch my idea to you.” (To which Steve responded by sliding it back, unsigned, saying, “If we can’t trust each other now, we never will.”)
Having someone snitch your pitch could happen, I suppose, if the people you’re dealing with are unprincipled lowlifes. But I’ve been writing, publishing, and hanging around writers a lot for more than four decades, and I’ve never had an unpublished work of mine—or anyone of my acquaintance—end up as someone else’s published work. I think this is true for several reasons:
First, you can’t copyright a title. Sure, some titles become so well-known that it might be unwise to try to sell a manuscript with the title Harvey Platter and the Philosopher’s Stone. But otherwise, you needn’t worry about someone stealing your title.
Second, ideas (that can’t be copyrighted either) are a dime a dozen. I once had an editor tell me that, and then explain, “What I need are writers who can execute great ideas.” Noted.
Third, though your idea or manuscript or title, etc., may be so brilliant that others are just waiting to snatch it up and skulk away, cackling maniacally, it’s a little more likely that you still have a few things to learn before your brilliance is irresistible to literary thieves, plunderers, and scalawags.
Fourth, reputable agents and editors are usually too busy to take your piece of work and—what, put their name on it? Assign it to someone else? Wouldn’t it be easier to sign you?
Now, having said all that, once your work is published (and therefore your ownership established by the copyright and publication date of the magazine or book publisher), it is incumbent upon you to become the curator of your own intellectual property. For example, I was once (in my four-plus decades) thumbing through a magazine and was surprised to see an article of mine—every word, including the title—published under someone else’s name. To make matters worse, I had not submitted nor been paid for that work; I assume the “someone else” had been. So I contacted the editor of the magazine, informed her of the situation, and was paid handsomely and a correction issued in a subsequent issue of the magazine.
I also have a friend (yes, I have friends) who once wrote an article that has often been presented in other people’s work as an “anonymous” story. But, of course, it’s his intellectual property. So, every time he finds such a reproduction of his story, he follows up, as he should.
So, don’t sweat too much about the possibility of someone stealing your idea, title, book, or plot. Go ahead and share your works-in-progress with your critique group and submit them (when ready) to reputable agents and editors who might recognize their value and publish them, possibly making you as rich and famous as me (though it might take a few acceptances for you to reach that lofty perch). Then you can start keeping an eye out for any unauthorized use.