Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Those slippery ideas...

Jessica Ruston at the enjoyable blog The Book Bar feels that writers are often over-concerned about protecting their ideas: there are bound to be zeitgeist ideas out there, and if another writer is first to write the one you had in mind, well you just pick yourself up and turn to another one...

Hm, says The Bitch, gnashing her teeth at the memory of what happened to her.

The Bitch thought the same as Jessica the time a freelance producer went down to London with a few of her ideas, all of which were duly rejected, only for one of them to appear as a well-received drama series a year later. You hear of it happening all the time, after all.

But she got a bit more cynical when, not so long ago, she went in for one of these New Writing Schemes run by a major television company and funded by the local arts body. She should have smelled a rat right at the start, of course - why would a major TV company need puny arts board funding to run such a scheme, which consisted of a single day of workshops with fees, presumably, to three well-known TV writers, a fee of £500 each to the fifteen or so participants to write a detailed treatment, and a big plate of sandwiches? Could it possibly just be to give the whole thing a veneer of worthy respectability? The project was supposed to be an investment for the company, after all: the stated aim was to look for new writers.

Ha. Well, I did smell a rat when I saw the contract. There was the clause which is apparently standard nowadays, based on Jessica's idea of a big Floating Tank of Ideas, stating that there was no come-back if my idea wasn't taken on but was later used by the company. But we were being asked to write detailed treatments, and were hardly being paid professional rates to do so... Was this really a cynical ideas-trawling exercise, and this time they were getting them on the cheap?

Well, true to form, The Bitch kicked up and tried to negotiate the contract, but she'd met her true match in the disgustingly young but steely woman running the show, who told her in no uncertain terms that the contract wasn't negotiable (did that woman own a dictionary?), that The Bitch had behaved pretty badly and joined the scheme in bad faith, and The Bitch was forthwith kicked off the scheme - without her £500.

Too late, like a fool she had already written her detailed treatment. And the real rat turned out to be not the company but a writer (as Jessica indicates): six months later the famous writer who read her treatment replicated in his drama series not only her storyline and theme but even the camera shots with which, in the workshop, he had been so taken. Well, maybe he did it subconsciously, and what's a Bitch to do, but take it as a compliment...

But you still wonder about the TV company. The writers on this scheme had all been chosen via stiff competition, all were of a professional standard and offered good ideas, and a series of six dramas was promised as an outcome. In the event, no series materialised. Only one of those ideas was produced under the name of a writer in that workshop, as a lone drama which went out about midnight when no one would be watching... perhaps to fulfill the conditions of the arts board grant?

5 comments:

Jessica said...

Ouch, I am feeling your pain, I really am...
And I certainly don't advocate shouting your shiny new ideas from the rooftops - I'm very cagey about mine. But when you're a beginning writer I think it can be easy to spend hours worrying about this, when the time would be much better spent sorting out that saggy bit in Act 2. Or whatever...

Alan Kellogg said...

Let's face it, Shakespeare's already done it, and he stole from others in the first place. If you can't be original, then use the idea better than others have before you.

Idea: A plague of overwhelming apathy sweeps the world. Nine out of ten people simply give up and wait to die. There is no way to help them. How would this impact the world?

Susan Hill said...

You can protect yourself a bit. When you have a theme/synopsis/briliant high-concept film idea, put it down typed and dated. Get a witness. Both sign it. And then lodge the sheet of paper in your bank or solicitor`s office. That will not cost a huge amount. If you subsequently submit it, it is rejected but turns up in detail from one of the companies who has seen it but rejected it from you - then you can actually sue them and you do have dated and witnessed prof. BUT the two things have to be very close . There is no copyright on vague general ideas. You know 'A crime novel set on a spaceship' will not do.

Fiction Bitch said...

You are so right, Alan. And thanks for that, Susan. I have a safe deposit in my bank for such purposes and it costs me something like £30 a year. (Not that I thought of using it in the instance I write about...!)

Alan Kellogg said...

Susan,

You're talking more about premise, a basic fleshing out of an idea where the beginnings of plot and character are starting to form out of the ideation muck. The idea is starting to get a voice, and it is in the voice that one can hear the author and his life. It is, in other words, starting to become identifiable as the author's.