Last week, we talked about how to submit your brilliant idea to a studio. But what do you do if someone steals that brilliant idea from you? Your gut tells you to sue – it’s theft isn’t it?! But wait a minute, you think. If submitting an idea isn’t as straightforward as you thought, maybe dealing with idea theft won’t be straightforward either. That’s exactly right, you brilliant human being! Unfortunately, the answer to “what do I do if someone steals my idea?” is “it depends.”
The best-case scenario for you is that you have a signed, written contract that says the other party will pay you and give you credit if they use your idea. Then, if your idea is stolen, it’s a clear breach of that contract. The only additional thing you have to show in this scenario is that the idea you disclosed to the other party was novel. However, in the entertainment industry, you’re going to have a hard time getting someone to sign a written contract to this effect, so while this is the dream scenario, it’s probably not super realistic.
If you can’t get someone to agree in writing to pay you for your idea, the next best thing is to show an implied-in-fact contract. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” you say. An implied-in-what huh? Deep breaths, nobody panic. It just means that while you didn’t get a written contract signed, it’s implied by the parties’ conduct and words that you meant to form a contract! So while maybe Mr. Bigshot-Producer won’t sign that piece of paper, he tells you over drinks at Dan Tana’sthat he’ll pay you and give you credit for your idea and then has you pitch it to him. Obviously he’s acting like he would if that was all written down on a fancy legal piece of paper, so then if he turns around and snatches that idea, an implied-in-fact contract lets you say to a court “hey wait a minute, we were operating as if there was a written contract” and the court may enforce that agreement like there was a writing.
One other option you may have, depending on the relationship you have with the party who stole your idea, is called breach of confidence. To show a breach of confidence, you must have had an idea offered in confidence, which is voluntarily received in confidence with the understanding that it is confidential, and the Receiver won’t use it without Teller’s permission. In less fancy terms? You shared an idea with someone, you both agreed it was being shared in confidence, and the person you told promised not to use your idea unless you said it was okay. This is reserved for scenarios where you have some sort of close, pre-existing relationship with the person who stole your idea, so while it’s unlikely to apply to a big studio executive you met once, it gives you some security against that double-crossing sister-in-law of yours.
Now before you run off to court, let’s just talk through two more little things. First, if the person who you think stole your idea can show that they came up with the idea totally independently, then they have a pretty solid defense to your idea theft claim. The other thing to think about is that pesky submission agreement we touched on last week. If you did sign a submission agreement, it’s highly likely you’ve waived your rights to pursue a claim for idea theft, so make sure you go back and read that closely before you try to sue.