Would a magazine editor steal my story idea?

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

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  1. says

    Jake, interesting question! I think writers tend to be more worried about this than they need to be, especially given the fact that truly original ideas so rare. That said, I’ve had this happen. In one case, an editor preferred to write the story in-house, so she asked if I’d be interested in an idea fee instead. I was fine with that and don’t consider that an ethical issue at all because she was honest and willing to compensate me for my time. (Plus, I figured it might endear me to her for the future so I’d hopefully get another assignment later on.)

    Another case didn’t have such a happy ending. In this case, I sent a bunch of ideas to an editor I’d worked with before, so I thought it was clear that I wanted to write those articles (later, a fellow writer argued that she may have gotten me confused with a PR person pitching a client but I don’t buy it).

    I followed up and didn’t hear from her until months later, when she sent me an email to let me know that she’d sent the idea to a related publication and they’d published my idea that day! Her tone was “isn’t this great!?” but it felt like a slap in the face because I didn’t get any credit or compensation for the idea, which she acknowledged as mine her email. I responded saying, “Please let me know if you’d like to assign me to write any of these other ideas,” but it left a very sour taste in my mouth and I haven’t pitched her since.

    Some people have said sending ideas for her to use how she chooses is part of maintaining that relationship, but I think it bordered on unethical, even though she was honest to me about it. What’s your take, Jake?

  2. Dr. Freelance says

    Thanks for the comment, Susan. The “idea fee” is a new one to me — I would say that’s a wonderfully upfront and ethical way to handle it. Kudos to that editor, and to any other editor incorporating that strategy.

    In your second situation, that’s most certainly unethical — not to mention infuriating! (I have a couple of editors that I do similar brainstorming for, and it’s always the agreement that I’d write whatever was accepted.) And I’m with you in not buying the PR-pitch-confusion angle.

    My take? 1) The ideas were certainly not hers to sell wherever she wanted without telling you, and 2) at the very least she should have given you the right of first refusal for assignment in her own publication. She was only honest *after the fact*, which is a lousy form of better-to-ask-forgiveness-than-permission honesty in a situation like this. You’re right to remove her from your pitch list.

  3. Lori says

    Jake, I’ve actually had a magazine buy a portion of an article and basically stole the rest. They did it through the cunning use of contract wording, which was my fault for not seeing that word “minimum” when they spelled out how many words they were purchasing. But it was bad behavior on their part (and they were a big name at the time, too).

    Ideas aren’t copyrighted, but they do get taken and reassigned to staffers. One of the women editors on our sister magazine did suggest reassigning in a meeting once. Thankfully, five other editors jumped all over her for it, and she quickly realized the error in her thinking.

  4. Dr. Freelance says

    Thanks for the comment, Lori. I have to tell you, that’s the first time I’ve heard *that* particular riff on idea theft — and I continue to be amazed at some of the stories people have shared other places that this post is linked. I think you’re a bit hard on yourself, though, taking any blame for overlooking a contractual loophole. (Plus, if you’d found it, you’d probably be a lawyer, and the freelance world would be a far less interesting place!)

  5. Ripped Off Writer says

    How about a major metropolitan newspaper on the West Coast whose film editor convinced me, a newbie freelancer, to submit a story “the way you’d write it”; providing resources, too. It was an unusual subject about a potential racial conflict which he had no clue about. Then, after playing phone tag all week, he suddenly announced he was no longer interested. Not surprisingly, the story appeared in the publication the following week written by a staffer. I still have his original email from 10 years ago, but at the time I was warned by many not to take on this giant publication for fear I’d never acquire another assignment from anyone.

  6. Dr. Freelance says

    @Ripped Off Writer, that one definitely goes in the hall of shame. There would be definite hazards trying to tangle with a large publication, especially as you’re starting a career. I wonder if the exponential shaming power of social media (as shown by the Cooks Source saga) would make the advice different today. Thanks for commenting.

  7. says

    Well, I wouldn’t have thought this would be an issue. As a freelancer and photographer, I’d never had this experience – until today.
    A year ago, I queried a regional magazine with a story idea in a good succinct query letter. The editor responded with a “not now, but perhaps in the future” kind of rejection, and mentioned that perhaps “next year” he’d be interested in such an article.
    Today, I bought the magazine’s April issue and there it is – my article, written BY THE EDITOR of the magazine! What kills me is, in the first four paragraphs there is blatant idea stealing, and in the third paragraph he essentially plagiarizes my query lead sentence.
    I like your article above, found after googling about magazine theft of ideas, and my daughter, a lawyer, says “it isn’t illegal to be a jerk.”
    Obviously, I won’t be pitching this magazine again.
    Thanks, I feel much better now.

  8. says

    Thanks for commenting, Bill. I think your story is like many people’s — you don’t necessarily believe it’s possible till it happens!

    And I *love* your daughter’s comment!