Let’s say that you are a writer with a great idea for a comic book character: “Maggot Man – Carrion Eater of Justice!” Your new superhero has the powers of a maggot and a sense of righteous indignation… but little else. You figure you’ll flesh out your character once you start working with the right artist.
So, you go to meet-up groups looking for the right artist with whom to collaborate. You tell a several artists about your character idea, take a look at their portfolios, and finally decide on somebody who seems like a good fit. But just as you finish up the comic book script and sit down to talk with your new partner, you see your character on the web . . . created by one of the artists you interviewed for the project!
You have timestamp emails showing that you sent your idea to the plagiarizing penciller before he created the project. Heck, you even have a Facebook post from him, it which he writes “Thank you for telling me your comic book idea; it sounds great!”
It looks like you have a slam-dunk lawsuit for copyright infringement or idea misappropriation, right?
Not so fast. Unless your conversations rose to the level of creating a contract for the protection of your idea with this purloining painter, you may be out of luck. That’s because the law really, really, really doesn’t like giving anyone a monopoly over an idea. In fact, copyright law expressly does not protect ideas.
The plain and simple truth is that if you post your idea on the Internet or tell somebody your concept at a cocktail party, chances are you can wave (and waive) goodbye to owning that idea.
This is because the law sees artistic ideas as building blocks for expressive works. Anyone who had exclusive rights to an idea would have a monopoly over that idea, which would frustrate the policy of copyright law, which is, to encourage authors in the creation of new expressive works.
And note: this whole “no-copyright-protection-for-ideas” thing is media agnostic — which means that it doesn’t matter if you’re writing the screenplay, recording a song, or have a great idea for a painting — there’s still no copyright protection over an idea.
So, what you do when all you have is just a concept and you want to work with other people to flesh out?
Parts of this blog been excerpted from The Pocket Lawyer for Comic Book Creators.
© 2017 Thomas A. Crowell, Esq.
Thomas A. Crowell, Esq. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner at the law firm of Lane Sash & Larrabee, LLP. He focuses his practice on intellectual property and media law.
NOT LEGAL ADVICE