QUESTION: An agency on its website has a contract that goes on to say that they are free to sell an idea similar to mine or my idea to another writer. (Probably if my work can't be sold) Should such a contract be signed?
If the contract is okay, how was someone able to sue about "The DaVinci Code?"
ANSWER: One of the questions I'm asked a lot in my classes has to do with the concept of stealing ideas. Everyone seems afraid that if they don't copyright their work, some sleazy editor will reject the book, but then write (or have someone else write) a book virtually identical to the submitted piece. This almost never happens, of course, especially in this modern age where it's easy to demonstrate (via computer records) that you're the author of something.
The situation with The DaVinci Code (as I understand it) was that it was a fictional story wherein a "history" of Jesus was portrayed, and that history (allegedly) looked remarkably similar to a history given in a non-fiction piece a couple decades ago. (I've not read either of the books in question, so I'm going just on what I've heard.) That sort of thing is riding the line of ethicality, if it's true.
Now, the thing is, an idea is just an idea. You can't copyright an idea, or trademark it, or otherwise protect it. Not unless it's fully fleshed out... in which case you have a finished novel, for example, which you can copyright. People often come up with very similar ideas for stories, and will develop them independently. If one happens to be published before another, that's just the way it goes.
Now, it could be that this agency has put this caveat in their contract to protect themselves from the sorts of lawsuits like the one with The DaVinci Code. But it's a slippery slope, and could easily open itself up to making actual theft of ideas "okay," per their contract. So, in short, anyone who signs such a contract should have their head examined.
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QUESTION: This is the part in their agreement:
"If an idea is mine and we do not develop it together, only I have the rights to the idea or any basic variation on it. However, if another writer approaches you with the same idea or a similar idea, you are free to represent the project."
Is it fair?
Is it "fair"? Sure. Is it a good idea? Well again... not in my opinion.
The principle stated in this section of their agreement is, I think, implicit in all contracts. As I said before, separate people can and do come up with similar ideas all the time. But putting this in writing, and having an author sign it, is almost giving them a loophole to "steal" your work.
And again, I'm sure they're only doing this in order to prevent a lawsuit, in the event that someone else does present a similar idea, but it's a very sticky situation. It's a temptation I don't think should be there.
Your mileage may vary, of course.