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Nooo! That’s My #$%#ing Idea! What Are Your Options When Someone “Steals” Your Pitch?

| November 3, 2013

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“HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?”

That was the subject line on an email I received from Sam LeBas, ComixTribe editor and media relations manager extraordinaire. Subject lines like this are either really bad or really good…and its usually 80/20 bad to good.

What Sam was referring to in this case was this Bleeding Cool article about the announcement of a new IDW series The Illegitimates by SNL actor Taran Killam and Marc Andreyko. Normally, I wouldn’t bat an eye at a headline such as this. Actors making comics is not news. But what caused Sam to send me the email as soon as she saw it was the fact that this series, about the adventures of a team made up of the illegitimate children of a James Bond-type world-saving, womanizing super spy, is the EXACT premise of a book that Joe Mulvey and I pulled Sam in to edit four months ago!

Not only was the general idea and high concept the same, but nearly EVERYTHING the creative team in that Bleeding Cool article said they would be doing in the book were things we were planning on doing. We had a different title – BONDS (which is the perfect title for this idea…but we later changed it to CHAINS to avoid being sued), but everything from the flashback structure, to the team dynamics was right in our pitch.

Un-freaking-believable.

Let’s Get This Out of the Way Right Now…

Make no mistake, I am by no means insinuating anyone at IDW “stole” our idea. According to the article, Killam has been working on this idea for 4-5 years. (Mulvey and I, in contrast, have been talking about our book for the last year and a half.)

Nothing was “stolen” here. No one has been “wronged.”

But man, does this kind of thing SUCK.

And in the medium of comics, where new IP comes out every single week, and hundreds if not thousands of working creators generate tens of thousands of new ideas every year, it happens far more often than any of us would like.

So, the question I want to explore in this article is what do you do when this unpleasant facet of creative life rears its ugly, annoying head? The way I see it, you’ve got four options:

1. Lawyer Up and Raise Hell

That’s your idea, damn it, and you’ll be damned if anyone else profits from it. Call the lawyers! File the injunctions. Cease and desist mother fu–

Stop.

I put this down as an option, simply to tell you, it’s not an option. You can’t copyright ideas, only the very specific execution thereof. (I’m not a lawyer, and won’t attempt to do a comprehensive examination of copyright law here, so you’ll need to do your own research if you don’t believe me.) Unless you have solid proof that your idea was in fact stolen, (and even then, you’re probably still out of luck) even contemplating taking legal action against someone with a similar idea who is beating you to the punch, is a waste of time. And it’ll probably just make you look silly.

2. Proceed As If the Other Book Doesn’t Exist

Let’s call this the “Keep Calm and Carry On” approach. Depending on how far into development, and how much time, effort, and financial investment you’ve made into a new book, your only option may be to go on with releasing it as planned, regardless of whether a very similar concept beats you to market.

This happens in Hollywood a fair amount. Deep Impact and Armageddon were films with the same premise that released in the same summer, and both were successes. In fact, Armageddon, which came out a few months after Deep Impact, turned out to be the much bigger hit. Likewise, Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down were essentially the same movie, though this time both under-performed. While comic book budgets are nothing compared to Hollywood blockbusters, I know I personally couldn’t shelve a project that  I had brought nearly to the finish line simply because something like it came out first. I would have put too much time, money, and effort into the series already not to release it.

Mark Millar’s Super Crooks came out after Joe Mulvey’s SCAM had first released, and was using some of the same language regarding the high concept to sell it. Both used the “Ocean’s 11 meets X-Men” high concept quick pitch. (To be fair, Super Crooks is more Ocean’s 12 meets X-men, because of the European locale.) But at that point, Joe and ComixTribe were already committed to the SCAM series…we weren’t about to stop simply because one of the biggest writers in comics was doing a similarly themed book.

Of course, this becomes harder to do when you’re earlier in the production of a series when the similar idea comes out. The less you have done, the easier it is to…

3. Just Walk Away

Sometimes, the best option is to simply shelve the project, waive the white flag, and accept defeat. After all, the comic market can only sustain so many vampire/werewolf buddy cop pitches, and if another creator beats you to it, especially one with higher name recognition and a bigger marketing budget, the best course of action may be to simply let Fang PD die an honorable death.

This is likely what will happen with the series Mulvey and I were working on. Now, truth be told, we were having some difficulty bringing this sucker to life. I had written and trashed two complete 22 page scripts for the first issue, each significantly different than the last, and neither quite hit the mark. Getting the “tone” right on a book like this is the hard part. And while our version will likely never be seen, I will be interested to see how well the IDW book succeeds.

Another reason its easy for Mulvey and I to walk away from this project is because we already started working on another idea, one that seems to be interesting us a lot more. I think if you treat ideas as abundant and disposable and worth the proverbial dime a dozen, its far easier to walk away from even the good ones. I know early on in my career, I’d become so fixated with a single story idea that nothing to pry me away from it…even if it was problematic in myriad ways. One of the benefits of doing this for a while and creating multiple stories, series, and properties, is that you realize it’s not the IDEA that’s the valuable thing at all…it’s YOU!

The egg, even if its golden, isn’t the true asset. It’s the goose laying that golden egg.

And YOU are that golden goose.

4. Change Your Idea Just Enough

Here’s a final option, that is a bit of a compromise between #2 and #3. Basically, you can choose to change enough elements from your pitch to make it indistinguishable from the competing concept, while still keeping much of what you liked about the original idea. Again, this is easier to do when you’re earlier in development than nearly ready to go to press.

For example, say you’ve been having a blast working on OMG, Zombies!, a satirical horror-comedy that’s a cross between “Gossip Girl” and “Night of the Living Dead.”  You’re like, totally stoked about it. And then, you read beloved scribe Gail Simone and legendary zombie artist Arthur Suydam are doing a book call #Zombies, which they’re billing as a satirical horror-comedy that’s a cross between “Dawson’s Creek” and “Day of the Dead.”  You’re screwed, right?

Well, probably, because doing a zombie book that’s NOT The Walking Dead is going to be an uphill battle regardless of the competition.  But maybe you can change your idea just enough…

Does the threat in your series absolutely need to be zombies? Could OMG, Vampires! work?  OMG, Cthulhu? OMG, Some Cool Kind of New Monster No One Has Ever Though of Before could be even better.  If the setting and tone and characters are all solid, maybe all you need to do is insert a new threat, and most of what you have will still work.

Or you could change the setting.  Perhaps you’ve spent all of your time thinking up clever ways for the monsters to attack. Does the action need to take place in the sorority house you were thinking of? What if you move it to a submarine? Or to the 1910’s instead of the 2010’s?  Yes, some rewriting and new research will be required, but that might be more palatable than throwing everything out and starting something new.

 Ways to Avoid Having Your Ideas “Stolen” Before You Can Use Them

So, clearly, you have some options when your great pitch was “stole” by another creator who’s going to be quicker to the market with his book. But are there any ways to mitigate the likelihood that your clever pitches will be taken before you can do something with them? I think there are.

1) Avoid the way too clever high concept.

Yes, I know, I sound like a total hypocrite with this one. After all, I’m a creator whose bread and butter is the cute high concept pitch. Look at my track record:

Super Seed – The story of the world’s first super-powered fertility clinic.

The Red Ten – How I would kill off the Justice League if DC was crazy enough to let me.

Epic – Teenage superhero living in Miami whose only weakness is girls he’s attracted to.

These are all classic examples of the clever, cutesy, get it in one-sentence or less, high concepts. And man, they are great to have in your quiver. The books could be total shit, but based on concept alone, people wink, nod, and take a look. And yes, that’s a good thing…

…But the bad thing about the clever high concept is, if you’re anything like me, in reality YOU are not that clever. And because YOU are not THAT clever, chances are, your simple, high concept ideas aren’t so unique that no one else has ever thought of them.

If you think about it, the idea that a James Bond-type super-spy, regularly bedding 3-4 women per mission, would inevitably shoot a few past the goalie is a pretty obvious one.  And the story possibilities for the adventures of the offspring of the world’s greatest spy and some of the world’s most beautiful, powerful, and dangerous women, is a captivating idea.

These sorts of simple, yet captivating ideas, don’t tend to be terribly unique ideas.  Killam was captivated by it. So was Mulvey and I. And I’m willing to bet there are dozens, if not hundreds, or thousands of creators out there toying with a similar concept.

The simpler the high concept, the more likely it is that someone else will do it. You know who didn’t have this problem? How about John Layman, with Chew. I think it’s safe to say that John and Rob Guillory were able to create their series in peace, confident that no one else was working on a book about a cibopathic detective in an alternate timeline where the FDA is the most powerful organization on the planet.

2) Write the book only you can write.

I think this is better advice than “write what you know”, simply because most writers don’t live terribly interesting lives. But, if you make sure that the projects you’re working about are all things that interest you, have a strong point for view, and are told in such away that your voice shines through, then it won’t matter whether others have something similar or not.

3) Vary your influences.

Comic creators of today, by and large, have all read the same canon of work. We’ve all read Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, and Death of Superman. We’ve watch a ton of the same movies and generally keep up to date on the hot new releases. So, as creatives, we need to expand our inputs in order for our outputs to be beyond generic offerings that anyone could create. Read books. Research obscure topics. Watch foreign films. Seek out cool stuff out of the mainstream, as all of that will impact the work you create.

4) Don’t sit on brilliant ideas.

On the other hand, another lesson here is that when you think you have a winning idea, don’t take your sweet ass time bringing it to market. If it’s THAT good an idea, and you don’t act on it, eventually someone, somewhere, will. They say the best defense is a good offense, and certainly the best way to stop someone else from succeeding with a concept similar to yours is to get your book out there as fast as possible.

Now What About you?

Okay, your turn. I want to hear YOUR stories.  Have you ever been working on a pitch or an idea, only to see someone else release something VERY similar.  How did you handle it?

Let’s continue the discussion in the ComixTribe Forums @ Digital Webbing.

Keep Reading!

If you found this article useful, you may want to read one of these three articles next:

Hard Numbers, Hard Lessons

Tackling The Short

Coming Up Short on Your Goals…Now What?

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Category: Comix Counsel

About the Author ()

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, educator, and publisher residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of THE RED TEN, a superhero murder mystery, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and TEARS of the DRAGON, a swords and sorcery fantasy. Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, which is both a new imprint of quality creator owned titles, and an online community where creators help creators make better comics. Follow him on Twitter @tylerjamescomics, or send him an email at tyler.james@comixtribe.com.

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