Dear Dr. Freelance: About six months ago, I sent a story idea for a food feature to the editor of a nationally recognized magazine. We went back and forth a bit, with me sending just a bit more info each time. I even sent recipes. She ultimately rejected my idea, but imagine my surprise when a recent issue came out with a food feature bearing a striking resemblance to the one I had pitched to her. How could she feel it’s OK to steal my story idea? I don’t suppose I have any recourse (do I?), but I’m interested in knowing how common this is.—Fed Up
Dear Fed Up: The recent Cooks Source fiasco makes it all too clear that some in the editorial world check their ethics at the door. That said, your circumstance, in which you believe a magazine editor stole the story idea from your query letter, is different from Cooks Source copying and pasting an actual story without pay or credit.
I can’t know what was in that editor’s head, of course. It’s possible she already had something similar in the pipeline on the topic or that, for some reason, she didn’t think you were the right person to write the story. But to answer your question: No, you don’t have any recourse — because you can’t copyright a story idea. In your situation, where you actually invested some back-and-forth time, that genuinely stinks.
With regard to how common idea stealing is? The fact of the matter is that magazines, particularly those in a popular topic such as cooking, receive more queries than you can imagine. Plus, there’s a staff of people who are constantly bringing ideas to the story-brainstorming table. Plus, editors know that the freelancing community has a fully functional rumor mill — enhanced by blogging — and that word would quickly get around if someone was dirty dealing. ***UPDATE: As of November 17, 2010, it appears that the Cooks Source scandal has killed the magazine. Is it in poor taste to make a joke about “just desserts”?***
Your mission going forward, as I see it, should be twofold:
- Sever all ties with the magazine you suspect of idea theft. It’s unfortunate, but life is too short to have a relationship with someone you suspect of ethical shortcomings.
- Remember that the end game of query letters isn’t to send a million good ideas to different publications — it’s to get those publications to hire YOU to write the story. Before you do a bunch of back-and-forth in the excitement of an editor expressing interest, secure a letter of assignment that spells out the terms. Then, you have recourse.
UPDATE II: Susan Johnston of The Urban Muse provides some great preventive strategy ideas in her post, “How to Arm Yourself Against Idea Thieves.”
Freelancers, have you ever suspected that a magazine will “steal my story idea” and write it themselves or hire another writer? (If so, what did you do about it?) Editors, is there any additional comfort you can provide a skittish freelancer? Please share your thoughts in the comments!