I have a question about personal copyrights. Sometimes I think about sharing a portion of my story (4-6 pages), but I worry that someone may take my idea and make it their own. I know that it would be a different story, because of how they would interpret it. But my question is how can you share your story with others (writing groups, online, etc) and make sure that you’re protected? I don’t imagine it happens often, but what do you do if it does?
Your copyright protection begins when you put the first word on the page. Copyright protects the uniqueness of your story–your unique and specific words in their unique, specific order; the unique, specific combination of traits for your main character, if he/she is very unique; possibly your world, if it’s unique enough. It doesn’t protect your idea or your basic outline or names/titles.
The best protection you have is to get your work published. Once it’s out there, and especially if it’s popular, editors will reject stories that are too similar to it. The more unique your story is, the more protection it will have. No one is going to accept a book about a vampire who lives in Forks, WA and whose skin sparkles in the sunlight unless it’s written by Stephenie Meyer. That is unique.
The human/vampire romance, however, is not unique. You can’t protect something like that. How many stories are there now about magical orphaned boys? About werewolves and mermaids? About people who see dead people? You cannot protect an idea; only your unique spin on that idea. If someone takes your basic idea and puts a new spin on it, they haven’t stolen your work any more than Meyer stole from Tanya Huff or Robin McKinley or Annette Curtis Klause. Chances are there’s probably already something out there that is similar to what you’re working on. Perhaps you’ve even read it. But you’ve taken that idea and created something new. We can’t stop that from happening, nor would we want to or we’d end up with only 25 books to read in the entire history of the world.
Now, as for protecting the unique ideas in an unpublished work, everything is a trade-off. Sharing your work in a writers group can give you wonderful feedback and improve your writing. There’s always that possibility that someone, intentionally or otherwise, might pick up some of your uniqueness and run with it. You have to weigh the risks vs the rewards and decide what you’re comfortable with.
This is my personal comfort zone: I share in face-to-face regular writing groups and classrooms, and in online writers groups and forums that require a password to enter. In these situations, I know the others involved can vouch for me if one of them “steals” my story. I do not share in a public forum, like a blog or a website, anything I intend to publish.
What about you, readers? Do you have this same concern? Where do you draw the line between risk vs reward?