CPs and Protecting Your Work- How Do You Do It?

I recently had an experience that has the little gears in my brain a-whirling, and I’d love to know everyone’s thoughts on the subject.

I’ve been trying out a few critique partners (CPs), trading a few chapters to get a feel for each other’s work and critique styles, and to see how well we might work together. It’s a harder process than I anticipated, but necessary. I appreciate my friends who have read over Bound in its various stages of done-ness, who gave me gentle feedback when I needed it. But there comes a time when you can’t rely on friends and family to tell you what you need to hear, and you need an unbiased opinion. Enter the CP, a creature a step higher than the beta reader in the editorial chain.

The first one I worked with gave me good advice, but she seems to have disappeared. I’ve found a few other potentials through Ladies Who Critique, but for the most part we’re still feeling each other out. One, on advice from a friend of hers, asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before she sent her work over.

My first reaction was, “Well that’s odd, but whatever. Can’t hurt.”

Really, it’s a good idea. I tend to trust that other writers aren’t out to steal my work; I know I’ve got ideas (concepts, anyway) lined up out the door and down the street SHUT THE DOOR, IDEAS, YOU’RE LETTING THE HEAT OUT! Jeez, born in a barn much? What was I saying?

Oh, right. I don’t need to lift ideas, concepts, plot twists, or anything else from someone else’s work, and I tend to trust that other people will offer me the same respect. Couldn’t hurt to cover your ass though, right? Seriously, we hardly know these people.

Completely agreed. And for that reason I almost signed; after all, I had no plans to reproduce, distribute, or otherwise screw with anyone else’s work, let alone this person’s (who seems super nice, and I wanted to work with her).

And then it hit me, as these things tend to do. Slapped me right upside the head.

I need to watch my own ass, too. Legally speaking. Not literally, I’m not that bendy.

Her novel has nothing in common with Bound, which is my main focus right now, and what she’d be critiquing. But it’s not my only project. The Newfoundland Supernatural series (working title only, please check your torches, pitchforks, and/or flaming pitchforks* at the door) of short stories and novellas that I’m working on is still in early stages, but it keeps popping up, insisting that I work on it between other things. And for that one, there are surface similarities.

Some genres are just full to busting, this one in particular. In a crowded elevator you try not to step on anyone’s feet, but it’s kind of accepted that you’re going to bump into one another. Also, you’re stuck smelling other people’s farts, and all you can do is suffer through it and hope the stink doesn’t follow you out. But I digress.

To put it more clearly (and less disgustingly), when you’re using similar concepts/tropes, there’s a really good chance that you’re going to have some of the same ideas, even if you think they’re brilliantly original. Most of us will grumble about it but acknowledge that the idea wasn’t stolen, and in the end the stories come out completely different, anyway.

If I signed a NDA saying that I wouldn’t use any of the information in any way, I could be opening myself up to lawsuits over ideas that were mine to begin with, just because I read them in someone else’s work at a later date.

Is that being paranoid? Probably. I don’t think this person would sue me, and I hope she doesn’t think I’d steal her ideas.**

Fact is, you can’t copyright an idea. Stephanie Meyer can’t stop other people from writing a vampire-werewolf-dumbass girl love triangle, presumably because it’s an idea that people could have arrived at on their own. Can you imagine how busy the courts would be if there were lawsuits every time someone based a novel on a fairy tale? *shudder*  In essence, if I signed this particular NDA, I’d be saying that it was OK to sue me for having a similar idea/concept/setting/etc. I don’t know that the lawsuit would go anywhere, but I don’t want to have to worry about it.

It hurt to say no, mostly because I’m a people-pleaser who cares way too much what strangers think of me. My first thought was, “if I don’t sign, she’s going to think I’m an idea-sucking monster.” I’m sure I’m not giving her enough credit, but hey, I’m nuts like that.

Got me thinking, though. Am I doing too little to protect my own work? So far I’ve only showed the full manuscript to trusted friends, and the CP I hope to continue working with seems like a trustworthy sort (and in the same “why the heck would I steal YOUR idea when I have my own?” boat). I think my idea is good. I like it. I’m having fun with it. But I’m also aware that it’s not as special to other people as it is to me, and I don’t think I need a layer of legal documentation to protect my precious snowflake; I’d be happy with a casual agreement that the work won’t be reproduced or redistributed in any way. Maybe that’s the wrong attitude.

What I want to know is, where do you stand on this? Do you get people to sign something before they critique a work-in-progress or review an unpublished work? If not, do you worry that people will take advantage of your openness? Am I being unreasonable in not signing a 2-page document full of legal-speak that’s just protecting someone else’s hard work? Have you been in this situation on either side, or has someone reproduced your work without permission? Any other thoughts?

*Officially calling shotgun on “Flaming Pitchforks” for my band name.

**Actually, I know she doesn’t think that– she got back to me, and completely understands why I couldn’t sign. Darn it, I like her!


About Kate Sparkes

Kate Sparkes was born in Hamilton, Ontario, but now resides in Newfoundland, where she tries not to talk too much about the dragons she sees in the fog. She lives with six cats, two dogs, and just the right amount of humans. USA Today bestselling author of the Bound Trilogy (mature YA Fantasy), Into Elurien, and Vines and Vices. Writing dark, decadent, and deadly Urban Fantasy as Tanith Frost. www.katesparkes.com www.tanithfrost.com View all posts by Kate Sparkes

14 responses to “CPs and Protecting Your Work- How Do You Do It?

  • jadereyner

    I’m no expert by any means but I have read up on Copyright for my own purposes and my understanding is that once you write something, you have the copyright for it and therefore if anyone reproduced your work, even it was only partially completed, then they would be infringing the copyright. You are right in saying that you can’t copyright an idea, only the written words, but the advice that I have received is that you use the international copyright symbol on everything that you do along with your name, and then that should be enough to protect you. I’m not saying that’s right, I’m sure you’ll have much more knowledgeable bods than me commenting – but that’s the kind of sense that I’ve made of the whole thing anyway! 🙂

    • katemsparkes

      Right. So even without a NDA, the work itself is automatically protected, but not the idea.

      • jadereyner

        Here is some information from The Writers Bureau course that I did. This may clarify things.

        “The copyright is owned by the creator of the original work until he or she sells or assigns it to another party. In Britain and the EU (don’t know about the States), copyright lasts for 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the originator of the work dies.”

        “There is no copyright in ideas or themes or basic plots. Two writers can have the same idea but convert it in different ways into their own idea.”

        “There is copyright in the material form in which the idea, plot or facts can be written, and this can include the intricate details of the plotting of a story.”

        “Copyright starts from when a piece is created, although the copyright shown in published material is usually the date when the work was first published, not the date when it was written. Remember though, you do have copyright protection from your work from the moment it is written and throughout the process of submitting it to various publishers.”

        All information courtesy of The Writers Bureau, Manchester, UK.

        Hope this helps.

  • beingcollins

    I think an NDA is going a little far, and your reasons for not signing it are valid. I think the biggest concern is not stealing the ideas but someone actually posting your work (unfinished… eeek) itself without your permission. Kind of like SM with Midnight Sun. And that would royally suck! I would hope no one would do that, but a verbal or online communication that you would not like them to do that should be enough. I think MOST people are honest.

  • L. Marie

    Kate, I’ve never signed a nondisclosure when I critiqued someone’s manuscript nor do I provide one for someone to sign. But I’m not against the idea. My critique partners are my former classmates–people I trust. And that’s the thing: giving your work to people you trust. I also don’t let anyone read my manuscript until the book has been written and revised at least once. I’ve tried it the other way–giving the book to people at various stages. After getting eight different opinions about what needed to be done, my advisor told me, “Shut the door on comments until the book is done. Otherwise you’ll second guess yourself and will never get the book written.”

  • Sam

    Hmmm. I don’t know the answer to this problem; I’ve been lucky enough to avoid it. My Ideal Reader happens to be my best friend, and she’s not only a brilliant writer but a capable editor. And – bonus points – she’s one of the dreaded Grammar Nazis.

    So, now that I’ve shown you my complete lack of experience in this department, here’s my opinion. 😉

    Echoing L. Marie: only show your work to people you trust. ‘Trust’ being in terms of professionalism and understanding, not just on a friendship level; you don’t want to throw your manuscript out to someone who doesn’t understand your writing, your voice, your style, etc. I would say that, if you’re sharing writing, it should only be with someone you already have some experience with and can trust – and, at that point, it won’t matter whether there’s paperwork and legalese involved, because you already know the person and their perspective.

  • Jae

    I think the CP websites are helpful, but for me, I’ve stuck with people I know or have interacted with frequently enough that I feel there’s enough of a bond of trust there. But I think you were wise to avoid the NDA too. Part of that makes me want to say to her, “Paranoid much?” Besides, with how hard it is for a writer to even get their own idea to something resembling acceptable, I think worrying about ideas stolen is somewhat foolhardy. Since there is nothing new under the sun, there’s nothing truly original anyway. But on the other side of that, there’s no one that can write your story like you can. I think most people are decent and those that aren’t will get caught and will live the rest of their miserable lives labeled as plagiarizer.

    I think you made the right choice.

    • katemsparkes

      Can you even imagine reading someone else’s work and thinking, “yeah, I’ll just use that”? It’s just not something I worry about. You’re right, I do prefer to know people at least a little before I work with them. It’s hard, though, when you don’t have a local writing group to interact with or friends who are writers.

      • Jae

        That would be tough not having locals to help out. Although I have found a lot of great advice from bloggers I’ve gotten to know. Just the other day Alex (one of my featured bloggers) gave me some great feedback on my first chapter.

        But yeah, I don’t get the whole snatching other people’s work. I think they’re a very tiny minority and they always get caught. Too easy to do these days with the internet.

  • mysticcooking

    I’ve been super lucky in my CPs – I found a couple of writers through Nanowrimo three years back and formed a critique group with them. I feel like I know them pretty well and definitely trust them, but recently I felt like I needed a few other CPs to look at our newly revised draft (you can only have the same people look at the same story so many times), and then Pitch Wars happened, and I got to know the other girls on our team and traded manuscripts with them, and they’ve been amazing CPs, plus I’ve gotten some excellent feedback from a few fellow bloggers as well.

    I think the key is to find other people in the same boat as you – people who have been writing long enough to know how hard it is, and who are invested in their own stories as much as you are in yours. It’s hard to imagine someone like that taking your story idea when they know how difficult it would be to turn it into their own publishable idea, and anyways, they have their own stories to work on. Still, finding multiple people you feel like you can trust with your writing is difficult, and I know I’m lucky in the support I have. Good luck! And thanks for the post – definitely a good thing to think about.

  • elainejeremiah

    This is really interesting to me as it’s something that I struggle with too. Ultimately I agree with you – I think it’s best to just take a risk, don’t sign anything and if your work gets copied a bit well tough! They’re never going to write exactly the same thing as you and you could spend your life stressing about other people copying your work when you could spend that time writing!

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