Turns out, Shakespeare stole his play Othello from another author. I just read a blog that insists: “A little-known Italian novelist and poet named Giovanni Battista Geraldi, also known as Cinthio, wrote a short story in 1565 titled Un Capitano Moro, which historians have noticed shares certain elements with Shakespeare’s Othello. Which elements, you ask? Oh, nothing major; just the plot, characters, certain names, setting, and moral. Cinthio’s version of the story is so similar to Shakespeare’s acclaimed play that we’re surprised Shakespeare even bothered to change the title before ripping it [off].”
In an era of no copyright laws, Shakespeare stole from other works, too. Even the beloved Romeo and Juliet.
The bard exposes questions writers bump into sooner or later: “What if somebody else publishes my idea? What can I do about this?” More likely, the questions should be: ” How can I accept that I don’t solely own my ideas? How can I adjust to an idea overlap and move on gracefully?” These insights help me with the proliferation of ideas in publishing.
No new ideas exist. A few thousand years ago the author of Ecclesiastes lamented, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). He also observed, “Of making many books there is no end” (12:12). He observed that ideas and events keep repeating themselves; that everything is a derivation of something preceding it. If the ancient writer observed this pattern, how would he feel today? In the speeding electronic age, it’s impossible to possess a completely original idea. We can only mark the idea with our unique viewpoint and presentation, faithfully following God’s call to write.
You can’t copyright an idea. No matter how creative your book, blog, study, or article idea, it can’t be copyrighted. That’s the same for titles. (Note the repetition of exact or similar titles on amazon.com.) You can only copyright the contents of your completed work. So until you finish the manuscript, anyone can unknowingly publish a work with the same title and similar content. However, unless that person directly plagiarizes, it’s doubtful the two works would precisely resemble each other.
Few Christian writers steal ideas. The poet T. S. Eliot wrote, “Mediocre writers borrow. Great writers steal.” The incessantly creative Pablo Picasso said something similar about visual artists. Both of these creatives referred to learning from other writers to improve your own work; perhaps imitating or morphing an idea, but not stealing exact words and images. Unless a person directly copies your work, it’s difficult to prove someone intentionally stole your idea. If you think another writer took your idea and its format after you revealed it to him or her, then it’s time to make an appointment and talk. You’d probably discover that writer already had the idea in process. Very seldom would legal procedures be merited. And if it’s Christian to Christian, remember the role of forgiveness.
Procrastination can hurt. At lunch with a friend who wants to write, she mentioned a recently published book by a female author. I responded that the book wrapped around a clever idea–a new “take” on a familiar concept.
Agitated, my friend Rebecca blurted out, “She took my idea.”
“What?” I asked, surprised.
“I had that idea and she wrote about it,” explained Rebecca . “I’ve had that idea for quite awhile and now she’s published it. I feel robbed.”
Rebecca might have felt robbed, but that wasn’t reality. She didn’t know much about the author. Never met her. My friend and that author conceived the same idea, but Rebecca procrastinated. During that time, the author actually wrote the book and published it.
Sitting on an idea too long might mean someone else, anywhere in the world, moves ahead and publishes something similar. Especially if you feel the Lord inspired you to write something, don’t take too long to act on it. Procrastination can turn into disobedience. Or at least serve you a lost opportunity.
You can publish an altered idea. Even if someone else publishes your idea and its format, you can still use the idea. Just alter it. Craft it in a different way. There is plenty of room for one idea to scatter into many life-giving angles and versions. Yes, the market can glut with similar themes, but if God asked you to write about something, that’s not your concern. Write your own version. Reach a narrow readership. This advice sinks the hearts of agents, editors, and financial managers, but we’re not called to be top-listers with our projects. We’re to fulfill our calling. It’s just as valid to impact a few people–or even one–with the hopeful, healing splinters of the Gospel through our writing. In any format. With a small-budget or non-existent marketing plan. Stretch your creativity and write the same idea in a unique or unusual way.
Each generation needs the same messages. More than 20 years ago, I wrote a book about women finding their purpose and passion in life. It was received well, along with a Bible study and seminar to accompany it. Recently when I noticed younger women writing about the same topic–almost using the identical tag line as mine–my first response in my head complained, Well, I wrote about it first! They’re acting like this is a new revelation. Books dwindle in sales over time, but I still wanted recognition for my influence and creativity. For someone to acknowledge I wrote a purpose book if not first, in the early stages of Christian women exploring this topic. Selfish, I know. After awhile I repented for my self-indulged, haughty viewpoint. I conceded this was God’s message, not mine. He could scatter it around wherever, whenever, and through whomever He pleased.
God doesn’t drop an idea or message into the soul of one person, one time in history. Each generation needs the Gospel and biblical principles in fresh ways. In words and formats that introduce Him to the younger generation within a context they comprehend. Women in their twenties through fifties can reach readers I can’t. Instead of claiming someone took my message, I now think, Isn’t that wonderful the message about purpose continues on? How can I celebrate that author encouraging her generation or unique group to embrace God’s individual purpose for each woman? My positive response wasn’t automatic. But when I reminded myself purpose comprises an element of God’s time-evading desire for humanity, I acknowledged my tiny role (a speck, really) in spreading this magnificent message. I applaud my spiritual sisters for carrying it forward. And encourage them to stride with humility.
It’s not a competition. A writer friend Anna attended a conference designed to encourage Christian writers and speakers. During a round-table meal, Anna revealed she was writing a book about a specific topic. Another writer at the table suddenly seemed agitated and explained, “That’s my topic and format, too.” After this admission, the responding writer changed in demeanor and wouldn’t talk much. Anna told me, “I could feel the chill.” My friend was new to the publishing world, but over time she returned from other Christian writer conferences with the same observation: “Most of the writers seem engaged in competition with one another. I can’t stand that.”
God never asked us to compete with one another. It’s poison to the soul, our unity, and collective message. Although we think we’re hiding our competitiveness, readers and other writers detect this spirit. You can destroy effective ministry through competition. Instead of silently comparing, complaining, and competing, we’re to fulfill our calling, our unique expression, our Spirit whispers to write something specific or pursue a ministry theme. A competitor since birth, it’s required years for me to absorb this truth. I damaged myself and others along the way.
Overall, we can’t control the proliferation of ideas. We can only follow God’s impressions on our hearts through our unique viewpoint, personality, and writing style. We can flex when it’s necessary. And contribute to harmony instead of hostility among Christian writers. The world watches us.
Note: If you read the blog about Shakespeare’s theft, you’ll need to pardon the language. http://www.cracked.com/article_21898_5-famous-authors-who-stole-their-biggest-ideas.html
Judith Couchman is the author or compiler of more than forty traditionally published books, compilations, and studies. She’s currently writing the book, How to Keep Writing and Loving It. Sometimes she writes about art, a passion for many years. She’s not worried about somebody stealing her ideas.