Is there such a thing as ‘idea theft’?

Picture yourself in this situation, if you haven’t already: You’ve pitched a story idea to a newspaper, magazine or online editor, received a nod of acknowledgement either in person or by correspondence and words of praise but not commitment, was thanked for your input and then left with the impression the editor would get back to you for follow-up. Days, weeks, maybe months pass without that follow-up.

Then, forewarning aside, the same story idea turns up, in almost the identical context as your pitch, in the editor’s publication.

The first natural thought is, “That (insert your favorite insult here) stole my idea!” A grand display of teeth-gnashing, fist-clenching and floor-pacing follows, and soon after arises the notion to give that editor a piece of your mind.

But before you do, consider two things. First, if you intend to give someone a piece of your mind, remember to leave enough for yourself. And second, the likelihood that the editor “stole” your idea is indefensible and improbable.

The truth is, nobody “owns” a story idea. Those thoughts swirling around in our heads afford no collateral by themselves. We like to think they do because of the inspiration they give us and the biased belief that nobody else had them. But unless an idea is written down, it doesn’t technically exist. And even then, it must be copyrighted before the owner can pursue and expect compensation for theft.

When an “original” story idea winds up flowing from someone else’s pen or keyboard, a few factors probably came into play:

It wasn’t original — Across decades and thousands of publications, assorted story themes have been hashed and rehashed, with tweaks made here and color added there as freshener. Arguably, the idea you’re pitching took root the same way it did for another writer, and another writer before that. Inspiration takes many forms, one being the unanticipated reflection of another person’s inspiration.

Bad timing — Chances are, too, the publication had an idea much like yours on its calendar. Publications of all sorts stockpile ideas and schedule them well in advance to keep their production on track; your idea might have been on the docket or in process long before it became “your” idea.

Editor’s prerogative — Part of what editors do daily is determine the optimum bang for a publication’s buck, and that includes finding the best writers and reporters for particular story ideas. Experience, talent, resourcefulness, enterprise — these all factor highly when editors assign a story to one person instead of another. Bear in mind though, this does not imply greater general competence; rather, it points to specific competencies certain stories need to shine.

Lack of expertise — Along that line, for freelancers, this suggests they develop and hone special skills and have a “niche” they can call their own. An editor shopping a story idea on mutual funds or needlepoint, or seeking and editor who can easily clarify either story, will choose talent they know has better-than-average knowledge of those topics before tossing it up to the crowd. When making a pitch, prove not only the story idea’s value but yours as well.

Of course, not every editor or publication possesses sterling intent and unassailable character. Because ideas lack easy protection, it’s possible for editors to plumb for ideas after their dependable reserves of material dry up, or their motives are unmasked, but this is bound to bring them detrimental long-term results. The various publishing industries, whether print or electronic, are close-knit environments made tighter through the nation’s economic tumult over the past four years. That and the rise of social media have forged both direct and relational connections between writers and editors that were once unimaginable.

So basically, editors who lift others’ ideas too often risk their reputations and their jobs, an unwise tactic to take in a shrinking marketplace.

But to be sure, writers can employ tactics of their own against the concept of “idea theft”:

Research — Look into a publication’s background regarding freelance work. Learn the publication’s policies and practices, and try talking with other freelancers to see how they were treated. Above all, read through as many back issues as you can find, to see what ideas have been done and how they were presented.

Confidentiality — Ask editors to keep ideas confidential and extend the courtesy of a reply once they know whether to go with the story. No editor is obligated to do this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. And if the pitch is submitted in print, clarify the confidentiality concern with a line or two making the same request. Furthermore, keep story sources out of written proposals where possible, if for no other reason than to protect their confidentiality as well.

Contact — Stay in touch with editors, but don’t hound them. A call, email or note after a couple of weeks to remind them you’re eager to get to work is OK. Maybe mention, too, that other editors have expressed interest in the story, but say this only in honesty. Don’t make allegations or claims that editors can verify but you can’t.

Patience — Most editors, no matter the publication, are swamped with offers and ideas amid their other work. Weeks may pass before they’re able to give a response. So, scrutinize the calendar and plan to give pitches well ahead of the events they address. Harried editors will appreciate it.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.


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  • If an idea cannot be stolen, why are newspapers copyrighted? What is intellectual property and why are so many attorneys making fortunes practicing it?
    As a former journalist and member of the Journalism Foundation Board, I am a firm believer that what your mind creates belongs to you. Does it fit into a broad category? Most everything does. Does it write itself? No.
    Now, as a PR professional, I can recount many times when days went into a comprehensive proposal from my agency, tens of hours of otherwise billable time going into presenting the very best plan for a would-be client in response to their request. The client is never charged for that time. It is assumed to be the cost of doing business and, if successful, will pay for itself in hourly or retainer fees.
    When a business takes my proposal, does not hire me to implement it over time, and executes the ideas therein, I have a word for that. Theft.
    The ideas have been stolen, not the time it took to develop them.
    We leave entirely too much to courtesies and informal understandings, just as courts have unwritten rules and customs.
    I started adding the copyright icon to my proposals in 2007 after being burned once too many times. Not sure how you sell an idea to an editor and keep it secret at the same time, however, I am damned sure that when I have an idea for a business, and present it to them in the context of a proposal, that I “own” that idea until they buy it from me.

  • What is protected by copyright is the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. That is, your proposal is protected as a document. including the copyright symbol may help deter the most blatant of thieves and certainly can’t hurt.

    You can include language in something like a proposal that says something like, “None of the information/creative approaches in this proposal may be used in any form without the prior permission of and payment to Creative Person.” (Please note that I am not a lawyer, so that kind of language should be reviewed by yours.) As for story pitches, the trick is to present a good idea but keep the specifics of your sources vague enough that no one else can reach/use them.

  • I’m a Freelance reporter in the braaocdst field.I started out in the newspaper field but I’ve switched to TV news.When you’re first starting out there is no average fee. There’s no such thing as getting paid (per hour). It varies by company and the contract you’re perhaps under with them.Some companies pay freelance writers per word, some pay per story, or queery , some pay per line. Go to Barnes Noble or Borders and look under the Writing Secction for books called FREELANCE WRITER HANDBOOK, this book should give you better ideas on what companies and magazines are offering to pay people.Some pay for queeries only some only pay for story ideas. It varies by magazine and the company they are with as well as how much money they can play with to pay writers.


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