Don’t tell anyone about your idea. Ever.
That’s is. That’s all you need to do. Unfortunately this strategy has a major drawback – if you don’t pitch your idea you will never sell it? And what’s the point of that?
There is always a risk that your ideas will be stolen, but there are a number of things you can do that will reduce the risk:
If you have specialist knowledge, exclusive access to a famous person or institution, or have unearthed some never-seen-before and history-changing archive footage, you are in a strong position. Put simply, the programme can’t be made without you, which gives you a great deal of leverage.
However, be careful when you are pitching your idea. Give only enough information to whet the commissioner’s appetite without giving away all your sources, names and contact details of key characters. Make sure you’ve negotiated your continued involvement before start giving away too much.
If you do have history changing footage, you’d also do well to agree your place at the awards ceremony table up front too, or your executive producer will be quaffing champagne while you are heating up beans on toast in your bedsit. Just sayin’.
If you’ve already won awards, you’ll find commissioners’ doors swinging open as soon as you approach them. If you have proved that you can win critical acclaim and audiences (preferably both, but one or the other might do), you have the magic fairy dust that they want sprinkled on their channel, so they have no reason to separate you from your idea.
But you still need to watch your back. In this instance your idea is most at risk from your colleagues who may not be quite so pleased that your star might be rising above theirs. Some will have no compunction in ‘borrowing’, ‘adapting’ or ‘being inspired by’ your idea and pitching it as their own.
Know your enemies and nurture your allies.
If you have a knack for a certain type of filming – extreme jungle documentaries, or covert filming or are forever inventing cool bits of kit (eg. elephant poo cam), for example, you are likely to have your niche sewn up.
If you have the means and the experience, then the channels will want to work with you. And anyway, who are they going to give your idea to?
You might experience a bit of reverse ideas flow here – some poor person might pitch something that the channel thinks is a great idea but they also think that you could make it much better than they could, in which case they will approach you and suggest you make it. You might never know that the idea was originally someone else’s – unless they find out and complain loudly.
If you do find out that the idea was someone else’s – treat them as you would want to be treated yourself and pay a rights fee, or employ them on your team if you can.
Keep your karma clean.
If you are struggling to tick any of these boxes, your best bet is to have a really well developed idea and write it down. There is no copyright in ideas, but there is in the expression of those ideas, so as soon as you write it down you are offered some protection.
A good proposal won’t guarantee that you won’t get your ideas nicked, but it does provide evidence if you want to pursue a claim against someone.
The more detail you have in your proposal – format points, names of agreed talent, set descriptions, unique filming approach etc. – the better you will be protected.
There are very few new ideas (and you’ll know this if you watch TV…) and several people often come up with similar ideas around the same time because there’s something in the zeitgeist. In this instance it’s all about who pitches their idea first. Which is another reason not to sit on your brilliant idea – someone else might have had the same thought and be hawking it round right now. Get in the race!
Finally, you should keep a record of all your conversations, with contact details, dates and matters discussed. Keep a paper trail of emails – confirm meetings, specify what you will be / have been discussing and make it clear that your ideas are confidential.
If there is a future dispute this record will help prove who said what to whom and when.
In reality though, people tend to shrug their shoulders and move on – a legal battle is probably going to cost more than the idea is worth.
The best defence (and way to keep sane) is to have plenty more ideas where that came from. Only those who have no ideas of their own need to steal and they should be pitied. You, however, can bounce back with the next big thing.
Consult Own-it for advice on protecting your intellectual property.
If you are stuck for original ideas exploreThe Ideas Generator or click on the genre specific links on the right.
See also: How to Steal Ideas
Get more tips on protecting your ideas in Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch
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