An idea is a hard thing to quantify. It really is just air after all. Maybe some sound waves. But then - it is also everything. The internet was someone’s idea. So was cloning dinosaurs from blood in mosquitoes. One works – the other doesn’t, and yet somehow I’m pretty sure those two ideas are worth nearly the same amount of money.
The problem with ideas is, that the little puff of air, those mental waves of energy, that ripple in the time-space continuum – it isn’t seen as being worth anything at all. Not until it becomes a cold, hard ride-sharing App. Or a device that keeps your banana in shape in your laptop bag (it’s a thing). Or anything in Skymall. Once it is making money it is seen as valuable – as palpable – as patentable. But when its an idea – its flighty, and soft – and people don’t seem to mind reaching out and taking it for themselves.
This is especially scary for a writer. Because we have many, many ideas. And we love to share them. To air them and shake them out to see if they work. We like to talk about them to see if they are still interesting afterwards. To see if they wear out. To see if people laugh at them. And it takes a very, very (very) long time for them to become concrete money-makers that we can copyright and protect. These ideas are precious to us as Creatives. Like small children that we feed and spend time with. We talk to them, get to know them and when the time is right we share them.
Until you’ve had an idea stolen you can’t understand the horror, disappointment and (to be honest) the depth of self-righteous rage that can overtake you. It was your daydream, your secret conversation with a character in your head. It was your alternate vision for the shopkeeper at your local fruit shop, your re-versioning of the WWII encounter between agents. Your complex, flawed and beautiful character. It came from you. And because it is a puff of air, you risk having it snatched away.
I’ve had poetry taken and re-authored. I’ve shared ideas and had them used in grant-funding applications. I’ve tried out new characters, scenarios and characters and had them appear in other people’s work. And I’ve seen it happen to other creatives. Artists who have no money, but many ideas are taken advantage of by others with nothing but money. Filmmakers who pitch a fresh idea and are rejected, only to see it appear six months later on television. Students and interns who have no power are being scraped down for their fresh ideas – unpaid of course.
And to me - its wrong. To me? This is theft. Grand-theft. Because this isn’t something I just worked hard to pay for – it’s not my car or my credit card you are stealing. This isn't something I can insure. Or something I can even prove existed. This is part of myself – this is my essence you are taking. Pieces of who I am. They are not free. And they not value-less. They are goddamn platinum puffs of air.
There is a consequence to this theft of ideas. It is the shutting up, the closing in and the folding down of the sorts of conversations that change the world. We will simply stop talking. Stop sharing. And this will mean that our ideas won’t expand and be fed. They will not be as they could have been. Or worse – we will start to 'disclaimer' our ideas – “This idea is for anyone with the energy to pursue it.” – “This one is something I’d like to develop myself.” Ergh… and nothing shuts down a creative conversation like rules.
There is also a fairly simple solution. Don’t steal someone’s ideas. Ever.
And if you are deeply enamoured of someone’s brilliant thoughts, tell them. Ask them if you can collaborate. Or ask them if you can use the idea yourself and give them credit for it. Seriously – ask. Ideas-people love that shit. And I’m not saying don’t adapt, or re-imagine, or pastiche, or listen or rework – I’m just saying don’t steal. And I think without much trouble, we can all tell the difference.
Otherwise we’ll all just have to stop talking and hunker down in our mouldy coffee-scented spaces, alone trying out our ideas on the cup full of leaking pens (this works in a pinch – mine is a quite supportive pen cup). And then ideas get stale. And nobody likes a stale idea, they taste like self-importance and pretence. And there’s enough of that going on in politics.