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.”

14 Responses to What about Credit for Ideas?

  1. Jeannie Delahunt November 5, 2020 at 5:32 am #

    Great post!!!

    I share ideas but not too in-depth. I belong to a couple of FB Christian writers’ groups. The thing is you never know about people, sadly.

    I may share even less now after reading this. Will have to give it some thought.

  2. Barbara Harper November 5, 2020 at 5:54 am #

    Thanks for tackling this topic, Tamela. I have not seen authors ask for input on major plot points on blogs or social media, but I have seen several ask for ideas or run polls or contests concerning titles, character names, towns for their settings, etc. I think some do it as a means of reader engagement and building excitement. There’s even a name for it–crowdsourcing. Usually the prize, if the author uses one of the ideas given, is a free copy of the book (perhaps signed) when it comes out. I had wondered if there was any legal obligation beyond that. It doesn’t seem like there would be if the participant knows up front that the book is the prize.

    I’ve run a couple of polls on my blog, but not directly related to a book. I did ask for feedback on Facebook once about my author name. There is another author with my name, and I was trying to decide if I should add my middle name, maiden name, or middle or maiden initial as part of my author name so as not to be confused with the other author. I did get quite a bit of response. No one liked the initials, but they were evenly split between including my middle or maiden name. That at least directed me away from using an initial.

  3. Abby Martin November 5, 2020 at 7:03 am #

    Nice topic, Tamela! Before any of my books are sent out to a publisher, I ALWAYS get them registered for copyright, so they aren’t stolen. 🙂

  4. Sarah Hamaker November 5, 2020 at 7:35 am #

    Before the Internet, my mom wrote to an author specifically to give the author an idea for a book as part of the author’s series set in a part of the country where my mom lived at one time. The author loved the idea, and wrote back asking my mom to sign a release giving the author permission to use the idea. My mom was thrilled to do so.

    I think it’s always good manners to receive permission in writing for specific ideas (my mom’s was more of a storyline than a “why don’t you write about X” type idea). Your reader will be happy…and likely be a great source of word-of-mouth promotion for your book too.

    • Abby Martin November 5, 2020 at 8:05 am #

      Sarah, that is awesome. I do the same thing when I ask permission to use someone’s work in my book. In fact, I have them send me a written letter with their signature and contact info so I have proof that they gave me permission. 😉

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser November 5, 2020 at 7:41 am #

    I have been inspiration
    (and glad that I am able),
    for fun is my vocation,
    and I’m cautionary fable.
    They say my mind’s in neutral,
    and I gave them early proof;
    the trip was fun, the landing brutal
    when I leapt from peak of roof.
    But this display was rather tame
    compared to coming times,
    like when I flew an aeroplane
    through some powerlines,
    and I’ll give the world its goodbye kiss
    with “Hold my beer, dude, and watch THIS!”

  6. Kristen Joy Wilks November 5, 2020 at 8:22 am #

    My critique partner and I will brainstorm and since it is a mutual exchange of ideas, we are not worried about anything being “stolen” we just want each other’s books to be better however that comes about. I have rarely asked for ideas on social media, although once I did ask for people’s crazy puppy stories in a dog group. I let them know that I was wanting ideas for a book and people were happy to help. Rather than not wanting stories used, they wanted the book to release immediately … which we writers know is unrealistic, ha!

    • Abby Martin November 5, 2020 at 8:27 am #

      I totally get that. Good luck on everything, Kristen! 🙂

  7. Deena November 5, 2020 at 1:23 pm #

    I’m unpublished so I haven’t technically had my work stolen but in an online critique group, one of the authors commented several times on certain lines in my submission with, “Ooh, I like that. I’m going to use it in my book.” Yeah, I don’t swap chapters with that author anymore.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray November 6, 2020 at 6:47 am #

      Deena, I hope this was the author’s way of giving you a compliment instead of being serious about using your work. You may want to find out in a tactful way. Defend your work.

  8. Alan Williams November 5, 2020 at 7:51 pm #

    As I look over Christian agents, I find only requests for book proposals. Can you refer to several Christian agents or managers who are open to screenwriting?
    Rev. Alan Williams, Fredericksburg, TX

  9. Christine L. Henderson November 9, 2020 at 9:38 pm #

    I do understand the “credit for ideas” and appreciate the way Steve Laube suggests handling “idea” contests.

    Some years back, I won a contest for writing a story about my most romantic date. The contest was sponsored by a coffee company who had been promoting a series of commercials about a couple who were dating. I had to sign a release for the prize and relinquish the rights to the story. The prize included a trip to L.A. to meet the actors in the commercial.

    I brought several sample ads since I had experience as a copywriter and tried to hand them off to the sponsors for consideration. They would not accept them because they didn’t want to be liable for a potential lawsuit if they ever did anything even close to what I handed them.

  10. Hope Ann November 11, 2020 at 12:04 pm #

    I brainstorm with friends I trust. I basically view anything I offer as ‘free game’ for anyone I’m working with. Though this is something I take into consideration beforehand. If I have a plot twist in one of my books, I’m not going to suggest something really similar for their book.

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