What about Credit for Ideas?

The “Your Questions Answered” Series


If an author asks his or her Facebook followers or blog readers for help in brainstorming, does the author owe anything if he or she uses an idea presented in that way? I have seen some do it as a contest. They’ll ask for ideas for the book title or a character’s name, and if they use one, they’ll give that person a free, signed copy of their book when it’s published. Sometimes in an acknowledgments section, I’ve seen an author thank someone for a title idea or specific help with some detail of their story. Should anything else be done legally? Since the author is asking for ideas, is he or she using someone else’s intellectual property if they use one of the ideas? Or since they asked and the reader offered freely while clearly understanding the author’s intent, is it enough to reward them with a copy of the book or a mention?

Being upfront on social media is an excellent way to go. You’re telling followers what the “payment” will be, in public, so that should be safe and workable for all concerned. If, as a Facebook follower of an author, I do not want to “sell” my idea in exchange for a book or acknowledgment, I can choose not to post my thoughts.

Brainstorming Versus Coauthoring

Using an idea posted on social media is not the same as coauthoring a book. In that case, the person with the concept is working to partner with the author. In other popular arrangements, the writer gains permission to write a book that fits with a franchise. An example is a book based on the Star Trek franchise. The franchise owner may or may not write the first word, but a legal agreement is needed to show how payments and intellectual property issues would work in practice.

Ideas and Copyright

Remember that ideas cannot be copyrighted, but words can. For example, since scholars cite Pamela by Samuel Richardson as the first modern romance novel, that doesn’t mean no one but Samuel Richardson could legally have written a romance novel since that first one.

Legal actions concerning copyright have to be quite specific to gain traction. For example, lifting text from the works of others, as demonstrated by the lawsuit filed by author Nora Roberts, is illegal and is plagiarism.

Comfort Level

Even though I am happy to answer this excellent question, here is my bottom line: If you don’t feel comfortable, refrain. We all know that social media is not private. At. All. As an author, do you want to brainstorm on social media? As a fan of authors on social media, do you want to post ideas in public? Please know that, “Here is my plot idea you should use,” is markedly different from posting your favorite name for a heroine living in the year 1876 or voting on how much you like an image. As with any interaction, go with your instincts regarding whether it is helpful and something you’ll never regret sharing.

Back and Forth

One last word on ideas: As an agent who once wrote books for publication, I would advise authors to brainstorm with author friends and perhaps their agent as a mutual exchange. I often brainstorm with authors because I love the process, the authors, and the conversation causes me to become even more invested in that project. I know many of my opinions may not be workable; but if they are, I don’t expect any payment except for our shared excitement about the conversation.

Legal Protection if You Feel You Need It

I asked Steve Laube about this element and he wrote, “If you are concerned that your contest winner could place a legal claim to the book at a later time it might be worthwhile to have the winner sign a legal release form. In it the winner can acknowledge that in exchange for the idea they received xxxx as compensation and they waive any claim now or in the future for any further compensation either monetary or otherwise. Have your lawyer adapt something specific to your situation. A generic release form looks like the one at this link.”

Your turn:

Have any of your ideas been used in an author’s book? Were you given a copy or acknowledged?

Who do you brainstorm with?

How do you feel about sharing ideas with authors on social media?

As an author, have you or would you use an idea shared on social media?

For the entire series, click here: “Your Questions Answered.”

Leave a Comment

Checked Your Copyright Lately?

Have you checked your copyright lately? I mean, have you actually gone to the US Copyright Office web site and searched for your registration? You might be surprised at what you won’t find. Here is the link to start your search.

Most publishing contracts have a clause that requires the publisher to register the copyright, in the name of the author, with the US Copyright Office. This is supposed to be done as part of the in-house paperwork process.

If you do not find your book, don’t panic.

Read More

When Does a Book Become Public Domain?

Writers frequently ask about whether they need permission to quote from another book. The answer is usually yes. But if the book is in the public domain that permission is unnecessary. I don’t want to tackle the issue of “Fair Use” today, but instead provide a few links that you can use to find out if a book is in the public domain, or not.

First, use this form (
This form searches the U. S. copyright renewal records database. Any book published during the years 1923-1963 which is found in this file is still under copyright, as are all books published after 1964 (although until 1989 they still had to have proper notice and registration). Books published before 1923, or before Jan. 1, 1964 and not renewed (in the 28th year after publication), are out of copyright and therefore in the public domain. The form only searches books, not music, etc.

Read More

Name Brands in Fiction

So, you’re driving down the road, and you see a Ford F-350 with Monster wheels and an NRA bumper sticker. And you see a Toyota Prius with a Go Green bumper sticker. You know these are two different personalities driving the vehicles, right? You probably have formed an image already. …

Read More

Happy 85th Birthday Mickey Mouse!

by Steve Laube

 On this day in 1928 the film “Steamboat Willie” made its debut. The main cartoon character (almost named Mortimer!) was featured and Mickey Mouse was born.

You might ask, “So what? Other than fun trivia, what does this mean to me as a writer?” Actually the success of Mickey Mouse and the Disney empire cuts to the heart of today’s copyright laws which affect you and your work. A quick recital of history and you’ll see how Mickey is either your friend or your adversary depending on your opinion of copyright protection.

In 1787 the Founding Fathers established a copyright term of 14 years, and if the author was still alive a renewal for an additional 14 years. Many years later it was extended to 28 years with a 28 year renewal option (a total of 56 years).

Then in 1976 Congress passed a new law that set three new and important rules:
a) copyright protection was defined as the life of the author plus 50 years
b) Material produced before 1922 was considered public domain
c) Material already under copyright in 1976 were given an extension. Their works were protected for 75 years instead of 56 years.

If you do the math, that meant that in 1997 some of these older works were going to start going into the public domain (and Mickey Mouse would become public in 2003). So the corporations began lobbying for a revision to the copyright law.

Read More

I is for Indemnification

by Steve Laube

Publishing is not without risks. Plagiarism, fraud, and libel by an author are real possibilities. Thus within a book contract is a legal clause called indemnification inserted to protect the publisher from your antics.

The indemnification clause, in essence, says that if someone sues your publisher because of your book, claiming something like libel (defamation) or plagiarism etc., your publisher can make you pay the fees to compensate for their losses. This is to “indemnify” which is defined as “to compensate (someone) for harm or loss.” Bottom line: The publisher has the right to hire its own attorneys (at the author’s expense) to defend against these claims.

Doesn’t sound like a happy clause does it? But you can understand why it is there. This clause and the Warranty clause are notoriously difficult to negotiate. (The Warranty clause is where the things the author guarantees or warrants are listed; i.e. the book is original, it is not libelous in content, etc. This clause will be more fully covered by me at another time) The language has been written by the publisher’s attorneys and are usually set in stone.

Read More

News You Can Use – March 12, 2013

Plagiarism and the Link – How one author got sued when his publisher forgot to include the proper hyperlinks in his article. Read this article before write another thing.

Legal Issues for Authors – Particularly Those Who Self-Publish – An interview with Paul Rapp and attorney who specializes in intellectual property law. (Click here for his many articles on various topics in this area.)

How Many Copies Does It Take To Be an Amazon Bestseller? – Fascinating article that tries to answer every author’s question. But the use of BookScan as a threshold immediately creates controversy because not everyone sees it as authoritative.  Here are links to articles that dispute the accuracy of BookScan because of it being limited to only stores that report to them. (Here and here.)

Thomas Nelson Revives Two Imprints – Nelson Books will be headed by Brian Hampton. W Publishing will be headed by Matt Bauer.

Virginia Woolf on How to Read a Book – Who’s afraid to read this article?

“To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.” – Virginia Woolf

Life Emerges Inside Elaborately Carved Wooden Books – Amazing works of art by Nino Orlandi. Click through to see more. I have clipped one example below to whet your appetite.


Read More

The Cost of Permissions vs. Fair Use

by Steve Laube

Every book contract has a clause that reads something along these lines:

If permission from others is required for publication of any material contained in the Work or for exercise of any of the rights conferred by this Agreement, Author shall obtain such permissions at Author’s expense, in a form acceptable to Publisher, and shall deliver such permissions to the Publisher as part of the complete manuscript of the Work. Permissions shall cover all territories, rights and editions covered by this Agreement.

In other words, if you use someone else’s book you must get permission or a license and cover the cost of that license. Be sure to consult with your agent or your publisher when securing the license to make sure it fully covers your project. Some places will charge for the first x number of copies and then require that you pay again if you sell more.

There are some projects where the permissions and licensing are a bit more complicated, especially with certain non-fiction books. For example, our clients Khaldoun Sweis and Chad Meister created Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources (Zondervan, 2012). This 560 page book compiles selections from over fifty primary sources that address various challenges in the history of Christian apologetics. The compilation includes a wide range from Saint Augustine to Saint Teresa of Avila and Blaise Pascal, to more recent and present day apologists such as C. S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig (our client), and Richard Swinburne. (Click here for a sample chapter PDF and the Table of Contents.) To include every chapter’s material where the source was still under copyright the authors had to pay for the permission. They used the advance monies received from the publisher to secure those licenses.

Another example is our client’s project The Kingdom of the Occult (Thomas Nelson, 2008). (Click here for a sample of this work.) This 752 page reference book by the late Walter Martin and co-edited by Jill Martin Rische and Kurt Van Gorden has over 3,000 citations in it. When some of the citations are collected they comprise a good portion of the original source material. So they had to secure the permissions and pay for the licenses to use that source material in their book.

Read More

The Landmine of Fair Use

by Steve Laube

Remember you can use the big green button to the right of this blog to ask us questions. Recently we received two that were on the issue of fair use of other people’s writing.

What are the standard fair use rules for quotes of other published works? I used quotes in my book and my understanding was that if it was less than 250 words then you don’t need permission. But a friend is self-publishing and is concerned about quotations fearing she might get sued.

Always err on the side of getting permission.

One major publisher we work with has the author get permission for any quotations from a single source that is more than 25 words, collected (aggregate) across all uses of that source in the book. So if one quote is 10 words and 100 pages later is a quote for 20 words, the author must get permission.

Another requires the author get a written release from every person they interviewed and quoted in their non-fiction project. Including family members like your spouse, parents, or friends.

For more information read this excellent article by publishing attorney Kelly Way called “All’s Fair in Love and War – But Not in Copyright Law.”

Read More