Idea Theft or Coincidence?

Nearly every writer has had that “oh, crap” moment when out of the blue, they hear about a book or movie deal for a story that sounds remarkably similar to something they’ve written. Ninety-five percent of the time I’d chalk it up to coincidence or parallel development, which happens with inventions and technology too. Or call it synchronicity — some writers seem to be able to tap into a collective unconsciousness, as Jung would refer to it.

But there are times when you have to scratch your head and wonder: did my idea get ripped off by someone who read my stuff? I have never been paranoid about sending my screenplays out to anyone… agents, managers or producers, with or without releases (which basically say you can never sue them for theft of an idea). Why? It just isn’t cost-effective for someone in Hollywood to “steal” an idea they like, especially if the work has been registered with the WGA or copyright office, and there’s a paper trail establishing the source of that original work. At least that’s what I thought.

Over the years, however, I’ve heard first-hand from pro screenwriters about their ideas being ripped off by producers or fellow writers. And there wasn’t much they could do about it because the reality is if you want to work in TV, you can’t complain if a producer “borrows” an idea you pitched. It’s also possible the producer or fellow writer doesn’t recall where they got an idea from, and they’re convinced it came from their own mind.

I bring this topic up because it just happened to me. Again. In this blog, I’ve mentioned my script — THE DOLL (a.k.a., DOLL KILLER and VEIL OF DECEIT) — more than once since it has made the finals of a few contests, and I’ve been in talks with producers who are interested in it. Each time it was close to being optioned, financing fell through or the producer lined up another project that put my script on the back burner. It’s the kind of script that does well in contests largely because the plot is “different” — or as producer/director Andy Fickman called it, “wicked-weird” when he read it as a judge in the Maui Writers Conference contest.

Here’s the logline I’ve used for a long time: An aspiring actress is hired by a mysterious woman to be a nanny — to a life-like doll. Then the seemingly “crazy” woman accuses her of killing the real baby, and the girl must use her acting skills to elude police until she can find out why she was framed for murder.

Two weeks ago I read this in Variety about actress Rooney Mara being attached to star in EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES: “… Mara will play a troubled teenager who agrees to look after her new neighbor’s ‘baby,’ which is actually a very lifelike doll. She decides to go along with the charade while befriending the delusional woman, who happens to be the spitting image of the title character’s late mother.”

Okay, the dead mother twist is different than my script. But my protag is a troubled 19-year-old girl, who goes along with the charade of being a nanny to a doll because she needs a place to stay, and she believes the woman is delusional. I haven’t read the EMANUEL script, so I don’t know if the neighbor lady is really crazy or it’s a ruse, as is the case in my script. Also, the idea of treating a doll as a real human has been seen recently in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, but my original draft was registered 11 years ago… and has been read by a lot of people as a result of making the finals in a bunch of contests.

Ordinarily, I would dismiss any similarities to other projects as pure coincidence. What made me suspicious though is an earlier “coincidence” with the same DOLL script. A couple of years ago, I was watching Law & Order and there was a scene with a young woman pushing an old-fashioned baby carriage… and there’s no baby in it. Later, the young woman is seen taking care of a doll instead of a real baby… then there was another episode involving Muslim honor killings, which is integral to my DOLL “crazy” woman frame-up. The honor killings angle could have easily been something that other writers saw in the news. But the doll substitution for the baby? My wife had read my script, and she was stunned by the similarities.

So I did some sleuthing (i.e., googling). And surprise, surprise: turns out that the same L&O producer had been sued by an aspiring screenwriter, who claimed a particular  L&O episode had lifted stuff from her script, which the producer read as a judge for a small contest… a contest that I was a finalist in too. I checked to see if he was listed as one of the judges who were reading the finalists that year, and yep, he was.

However, enough things were different in the L&O episodes from my script that I didn’t have any grounds to sue the producers. The writer who filed the lawsuit lost her case. Did the producer actually “borrow” things from my DOLL script, or was it simply a case of someone else pitching the baby-doll idea and he didn’t even recall reading my screenplay? Who knows.

The upshot of all this is I don’t know if the EMANUEL project will have any impact on the producers I’m currently in talks with. They haven’t brought it up, and I don’t intend to point out any similarities, coincidental or otherwise.

Oh, forgot to mention one other coincidence: the producer of the EMANUEL movie had requested and read at least one other script of mine, which they passed on. Not sure if in the past, THE DOLL crossed their desks or not, but they were definitely on the receiving end of queries I sent out for that spec. Is it possible the writer/director or producer subconsciously picked up the germ of an idea from one of the hundreds of email pitches they receive each week? Sure. In the end though, it still boils down to execution of the concept… and who gets their project out first.

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2 Comments on “Idea Theft or Coincidence?”

  1. Sh*t!! I’m so sorry to hear about this. Your doll script is fantastic, so I could see how it would stick in someone’s mind. I have heard that it’s next to impossible to win a case when someone steals your idea because your story and theirs has to be nearly identical. But a lot of people do pay to keep the whole thing quiet and out of court…

    • richfigel Says:

      Thanks, Lycan! Yeah, not much I can do about it other than hope the Emanuel movie is a bomb and doesn’t get much notice. The downside of my script doing well in contests is that it was getting read by a lot of different judges from the early rounds up to the finals… in some finals, it was read by six judges (all professionals with TV and film credits). So who knows whether any of them thought it was a clever idea, mentioned it to a friend who mentioned it to someone else…

      Or, like I said, could just be a dang coincidence… I mean, it’s easy to see how similar ideas based on fairy tale characters, legends, superhero twists, can arise independently. Which is why I try to write stuff that I figure no one else is likely to come up with on their own accord.

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