In the first episode of season 2 of the USA show Suits, our hero and fake lawyer Mike had to deal with representing a publishing company against a former employee. The employee sued, saying she had pitched a book idea to her boss, wrote up a proposal, and it was rejected. Shortly after that, her book showed up under her boss’s name.
As part of her employment contract, she signed an intellectual property clause saying, essentially, that if she wrote it, thought it or sketched it while she worked for the company, it belonged to the company.
At first, Mike does the thing I always hate in these legal shows: he started to act against the interest of his client. He even convinced them to pay her off to the tune of $30,000. She didn’t take the deal. She should have.
Fortunately, Mike finally read the contract. Not only that, but he came up with two prior books the company published with similar ideas. “There’s nothing new under the sun,” he said. She ended up with nothing.
That brings up two key points for writers:
1. You can’t copyright an idea. If you put your idea out there to someone, you have very little protection if they run with it. Copyright protects the written expression of an idea, not the idea itself. If you have the greatest book idea in the world, write the book. Don’t blab and let someone else run with it.The whole inability to copyright an idea bit is scary. I write nonfiction, and when you do nonfiction you don’t write the whole book. You write a proposal with a few chapters and a pitch for the rest. There’s very little protection if a publisher says, “Wow, what a great idea! Let’s get one of our regular writers on this.”
2. You are probably bound by your intellectual property agreement. Remember the Bratz dolls? They disappeared off the shelves for awhile because their founder used to work for Mattel. He did some preliminary sketches while he still worked there, albeit on his own time. It took years of litigation and millions of dollars, losing a court case and the entire Bratz franchise, then appealing, to take it back. Most writers don’t have the kind of financial wherewithal to fight when their employer takes credit for their work.
So what do you do? Write the best, most professional proposal you can. Show them you’re the right person to do the book. Have your platform polished and prove to them you can sell the book.
As to employment contracts, always have an employee-side employment lawyer look at yours, especially if you do anything creative. Whether you are writing a novel that has nothing to do with work or writing a nonfiction book in your area of expertise, make sure you have a clause exempting any work you want to own before you sign. Otherwise, your employer just might own it.