Your Questions Answered Series

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.”

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