Just Effing Ask Julie Gray: Idea Theft – Threat or Myth?

Script consultant Julie Gray is a veteran story analyst of some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. The author of Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, Julie has taught story at Warner Bros. Studios, The Great American PitchFest and Oxford University. Contact Julie here.

Dear Julie:

There’s an old nautical expression “Loose Lips Sink Ships”… People ask me what is the name of your screenplay… Paranoid I guess… but I won’t tell them… well can you tell us what it is about… No… So how far along must I be before I can register the script. If I register the script that would somehow approximate the final product is that good enough… and the title… as well of course.

Dear Kenneth:

If you are particularly worried that your concept is so original that it needs to be protected post haste, you can go ahead and register your script with the WGA when you have a complete first draft.

If you want to wait a couple of drafts after having received feedback and then register a better, more final version, that would be my personal recommendation.

Now to the real meat of your question: Is it paranoid to not tell people the title or the logline of the script lest they steal it?

steal-ideas-jpgThink it through: you tell someone the title of your script. Aha! They go home and replicate your entire script. Not possible based on the title alone.

Or, you tell someone the title and idea of your script, they go home, and write a version of your idea with your title.

First, nobody can write your script exactly as you would. There are only so many stories that can be told but only you can tell it with your particular voice, from your particular point of view. That is a fundamental truth of storytelling that you can embrace and feel good about. Nobody is you.

Second, so there is a script out there with the same title – this is not actually uncommon at all. But until either script is optioned or sold, you do not actually have a problem. And if you do have direct, head-to-head competing titles, this is a champagne problem that is easily solved.

Idea theft is something that worries writers at times but the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t happen very often and when it does, it is among players at a very high level. Additionally, similar ideas tend to float around with writers in general. Every year, my screenwriting competition receives large numbers of scripts with similar concepts, from writers all over the world. Ideas float around in the zeitgeist, in other words. Each is executed differently, they are like snowflakes.

Not sharing a title or logline because you fear your idea or title will get stolen is cutting yourself off from valuable feedback and possibly, relationships that could help you along the way. If you feel very strongly that the concept is MATRIX-good, you can still share the title and give a logline/description that is too general for anyone to get a narrative grasp of.

Guard your script by registering it at the WGA (though how much this guards the idea is dubious, according to some). Focus your energy on coming up with fresh new ideas and executing them well and quickly rather than on worrying that your ideas may be stolen.

The only real threat is a writer who acts on the same idea faster and better than you do.

Oh and because I am a fact/history nerd: Loose Lips Sink Ships was a slogan from World War II.

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