^The Shadows^

 Posted on 6/2/1996 by J. Michael Straczynski <71016.1644@compuserve.com> to CIS

Chris Shepard <102076.276@compuserve.com> asks:
> If I write a show that was truly my idea, how do you defend
> yourself from some crazed lunatic coming into court saying that I
> stole it from him/her? How can that person prove it was theirs to
> begin with? It's the same idea, but how could one sue the other
> for stealing it? What about space battles in general?
> Cloaked ships?
> The shadows cloak themselves, but how would the Trek guys sue JMS
> for stealing their idea about cloaking technology? Don't they have
> enough?

Chris, the only thing wrong with your message, and your
assumptions, is that they're wrong on just about every conceivable
level. Let me try to walk you through this to help you understand a
little better.

First off...a general observation. Story ideas are worthless.
It's very doubtful that you or anybody else has had an idea that nobody
in the history of mankind has ever had before. You can take a basic
idea and give it to 10 different writer and you'll get 10 TOTALLY
different stories. What matters is execution, how the idea is
rendered. An idea isn't a story, and what matters is *story*, a series
of consequences and reactions based on actions.

Most amateur writers don't know or understand that, and think
that their story idea is something saleable, something somebody wants
to buy, or something they need to jealously protect. There are even
people who will exploit that. There was a publication a few years ago
which would publish your story idea in a big book, on per page (which
you paid for, natch), and sent it to the major studios and networks.

Not one of them ever sold. None of them were worth buying.
None of them were really stories. And it was thrown into the trash of
every studio or network at which it arrived because of fear of lawsuit.

Now, to your points individually:

"For one, I would talk with the individual and arrange something
legal so that his story idea could be used and he/she would receive
full credit plus pay."

This is illegal. There is no fee inside the Writer's Guild for
"story idea." (ST tried to get around this for a few years, but was
finally trounced by the WGA.) If it's a credible, WGA signatory, which
all the major studios and networks are, they can't operate outside
formal parameters in their agreements. There's no category for "story
idea," so they can't buy that, and there's a reason for it. A "story
idea" is sufficiently general that it can't be readily surrounded...is
it a sentence? A paragraph? A page? Two pages? You could start
taking whole stories, swiping them, and getting the royalties
-- thousands and thousands of dollars -- while the originator of the
story got a couple hundred bucks, if that much. This provision exists
to *protect* writers.

See, part of the problem is, you're looking at the TV writing
business not as a writer, but as a fan, a viewer. We who work in this
business have had to painstakingly, and at great suffering, fight for
protections for those who work in this business as their livelihood.
Creating a scenario such as the one you describe would hurt the
profession beyond description. Yes, you may like the show, but should
we set into place practices and policies that will undo years of
hard-won strikes, and create what is, in essence, the camel's nose in
the tent...the camel -- studios who would exploit this to take stories
and outlines for zero money -- would surely follow, on the logic that
if you permit this for one show, you have to permit it for all.

(Also, for the "full credit plus pay" part...again, what credit,
and what pay? There's no provisions set up for either. You'd have to
create whole new areas in the WGA for this, which don't currently
exist; you can't just do this willy-nilly. Pay...a flat fee? Fee plus
residuals? How do you determine how much a 1 paragraph story should
get vs. a two or three page story? Which gets a flat fee and which
residuals? It's a slippery slope.)

"Secondly, if I created a forum and opened it to fans who wanted to
give their ideas for stories, etc., then I would post a message at the
beginning of the forum stating that anything spoken and written in that
forum cannot be protected by law."

Now you're in violation of US Copyright Law. Anything you write
is instantly yours under what's known as Commonlaw Copyright. In
addition, a forum like Compuserve copyrights all content as a communal
copyright, owned by both parties, the poster and CIS. (All services
work this way.) Also under the law, you cannot make a statement or a
policy which removes people's rights from them...in other words, you
can SAY that anyone posting messages gies up their rights...but that
doesn't have *any* legal basis whatsoever, and cannot be enforced. The
only way would be to have each person type up a waiver, hard-copy, sign
it, get it notarized, and mail it *for each and every suggestion*
giving up all rights to that specific story. It can't be done en masse
for anything written.

"Lastly, how would one prove in court that someone has stolen someone
elses idea. If I write a show that was truly my idea, how do you
defend yourself from some crazed lunatic coming into court saying that
I stole it from him/her?"

That's the hard part. You can't. Sure, you can win the case in
court, but a case like this can take two or three YEARS of your life.
And most will hang on because most cases like this are settled,
regardless of merit, because it's cheaper than a trial. Do you want to
spend two or three days a week, every week, for three years giving
depositions, talking to lawyers, dredging out every bit of paperwork,
turning over your computer files to lawyers, having your friends and
co-workers deposed, your character challenged, all because somebody
posted a story idea that was vaguely similar to what you did? I don't.

"How can that person prove it was theirs to begin with?"

By showing a printup of the story as posted in the forum you
have suggested here. (Or another.) Their word not good enough? You
subpoena the sysops here, access the CIS database, on and on.

"An idea is an idea. Buck Rogers had the idea of stargates in it's
series. Babylon 5 uses the jumpgates. It's the same idea, but how could
one sue the other for stealing it? What about space battles in

See, again, here's the problem...a stargate or a jumpgate isn't
an idea, it's a bit of technology. You can't build a story around
that, so it's not a story idea, again you're not clear on your terms.
"How about a jump gate?" isn't a story idea. "How about a jumpgate to
go kill the giant frog monster in sector 97" *is* a story idea. Once
again, you don't have a clear notion what it is you're discussing.

"Cloaked ships? The shadows cloak themselves, but how would the Trek
guys sue JMS for stealing their idea about cloaking technology?"

Shadow vessels don't cloak; they have alternate technology for
phasing in from hyperspace.

"It's plain silly and it's a waste of everyone's time."

It is...until you end up in court for it. The ONLY reasonable
protection is the no-story provision. Especially in a case like B5,
where the whole story is *already worked out*.

It's the difference in perception between an amateur writer and
a writer who does this as a living. (By "amateur" I don't mean bad, I
just mean one who is either unpublished, inexperienced, or a
hobbyist...I'm an amateur bowler, as an example.) You don't understand
the consequences of this sort of thing, it's not a profession to you,
it's something you'd like to toss out there. But it can hurt. Marion
Zimmer Bradley recently found herself in a *terrible* position...she'd
worked for about 2 years writing a new novel, turned it in...and had
the book cancled by her publisher because a fanzine to which she had
possible access had published a very similar story and they might sue.
Two years of work, down the drain.

This isn't a game, or a hobby, or something where you can make
up the rules as you go. Writing is a *business*, a creative one, yes,
but if you're going to make a living at it, you have to treat it as a
business, just as if you're a carpenter or a plumber or a surgeon.
Those rules are there to protect writers from being expoited,
harrassed, ripped off or sued.