Although it sounds very technical and complicated, the actual copyright law is very simple: You write it, you own it. (Or, in government-speak: “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”)
That is not what this blog post is about.
No, I’m exploring the more complicated side of copyright – ideas that come up when you’re around other writers.
Of course, you can’t copyright an idea. That would be legally untenable, not to mention silly. But what do you do when you’re with another writer and you overhear something that could become a great devotion or short story?
It’s kind of like the literary version of calling shotgun. No one is exactly sure how it’s done, but doing it wrong can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, or writing group factions that involve Amish-style shunnings and inclusion of villains in future stories that bear a striking resemblance to the offending party.
As you can see, this is an area of writing etiquette that has long been neglected, and as an expert in all things prim and proper, I will attempt to propose some simple guidelines to what I call informal copyright.
Rule 1: Whoever says it has first dibs. This should be fairly simple. If you want to steal a quote or concept to use in your writing, ask the person who said it. Non-writers will almost always say yes, delighted to have their words in print. Writers might already have plans in mind for their witty statement. If so, back off. You’ve lost this round.
Rule 2: Write it down. If multiple writers hear the same story or quote and it is deemed “fair game” by the speaker, the race is on. Verbally claim usage of the idea, but also scribble it down on a nearby Post-it note, napkin, or piece of toilet paper. That’s a fixed form if I ever saw it.
Rule 3: Be a peacemaker. If you’re locked in an argument with another writer about who captured the idea in a fixed form first, consider whether one tiny quote is worth losing your friendship. Or play Rock-paper-scissors, winner takes it all. When mediating disputes between other writers, I would suggest that you award possession of the idea to whoever is most likely to take out their resentment in road rage, tire-slashing, or burning the other writer in effigy. You just don’t need that drama.
There you have it. Once you realize that, for a writer, potential material is everywhere, you’ll need to keep these rules in mind. Print them out. Show them to others. Make everyone in your writers’ group sign a contract to abide by them.
And, if you adapt these rules a little, you have a simple procedure for who can call shotgun on the way to the next writers conference. You’re welcome.