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!