In March, the author Elizabeth Gilbert, most famous for writing Eat Pray Love, visited my hometown and I was lucky enough to see her speak at the Brisbane Powerhouse. Elizabeth’s talk was about creativity and ideas.
Elizabeth speaks about ideas as though they have a mind of their own; she emphasizes that the idea chooses the writer, not the other way around. She told a story to demonstrate her point:
Several years ago, after a long time searching for an idea for a fictional novel, Elizabeth came up with a brilliant one. She began plotting a story about a middle-aged lady in the midwest USA who is made to go down to the Amazon jungle in Brazil to search for the son of her boss, who has gone missing down there. However, before Elizabeth could write the novel, circumstances intervened. Life got very messy very fast when her now husband then Brazilian lover was deported from the United States. That story is the subject of Elizabeth’s book, Committed. Needless to say, the fictional novel got put on the back-burner. And when life calmed down again and Liz tried to return to her novel, she found that the idea was gone. Or more accurately, the essence of something magnificent that had excited her and pulled her forth into writing the story was now missing. It had left her while she was busy doing other things. She never finished the novel.
Fast-forward to another day. Elizabeth is having coffee with her writer friend, Ann Patchett. Ann tells Liz excitedly about a new book she is working on – it is about a middle-aged lady from the midwest USA who is forced to go down to the Amazon jungle in Brazil to investigate the death of her colleague down there. As Elizabeth described it, the similarities between the two stories were uncanny and well beyond generalities or coincidences.
Elizabeth’s theory is this: ideas do not belong to us. They come to us to be expressed, and it is our job to express them. But if we don’t, if we dally too long, the idea will move on to someone else who will put it out in the world. It is not the idea’s fault – it just wants to be expressed. It is not the other person’s fault – they have not stolen the idea, they are just doing the idea’s will. This is what Liz believes happened with “her” idea – it got tired of waiting around for her, so it found Ann. Now the idea is expressed in Ann’s novel, State of Wonder.
Elizabeth touches more on these thoughts in her popular TED talk.
I started this post with that story because I think it aptly captures copyright’s attitude to ideas. One of the most important rules at the heart of copyright law is that copyright protects expression and not ideas.
What this means is that copyright will protect the way in which Ann Patchett has expressed her story – the turns of phrase, the way she has ordered words to describe something – but it will not protect the idea of a story about a midwestern woman travelling to the Amazon jungle. If Elizabeth Gilbert really wanted to she could finish the story she started. The idea does not belong to Ann, or Liz, or anyone.
Some people get quite upset when they find out that they can’t protect their idea, or that there is not much they can do about that person who has “stolen” their idea. But when you think about it, this rule makes so much sense. Can you imagine if you could never write a story about star-crossed lovers because Shakespeare (or probably someone before him) got there first? Or about child wizards at a magic school because JK Rowling (or certainly someone before her) already did it? Or imagine if one person had control over the idea of taking a photo of someone doing yoga poses on the beach? It would be absurd.
Ideas are supposed to be free, to belong to everyone and no-one. Copyright law keeps it that way, by only protecting the very particular ways in which ideas are expressed.
Want more? Here’s Seth Godin on why he wants you to steal his ideas.