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Comments on Star Letter in this month's WM

edited March 2009 in - WM and WN
Did any of you read this letter about the writing student who had her story plan/ideas 'stolen' by a writing tutor?

If it did happen in the way she explained it, then in my view the tutor has badly abused her position. The tutor's assertion that 'there is no copyright in ideas', is true in the legal sense, but surely there is an ethics/morality issue. A pity the writer didn't feel able to name the tutor so I could be sure of not going on any of her courses!

What do others think?


  • I thought it was a shocking story! I worked as a tutor for eight years, started with David and Charles (the originators of WN) and Writers Bureau, then Rapid Results College, eight years of tuition and never, ever, did it cross my mind to steal a student's story! I praised where I could, advised where necessary, cajoled when I could to keep people going. Steal? Absolutely beyond the pale.
  • I think the situation is disgusting. The tutor should be identified and shamed.
  • I, too, read this story with disgust. I thought the letter very restrained if this was situation. It would be interesting to know the identity of the tutor if only to give them a right of reply. Surely this could not be their normal practise. One would hope anyone capable of running a writing course would have plenty of ideas of their own to follow up.
  • edited March 2009
    It would have been different if the tutor had asked for permission, but to steal the idea, sell the story and then brag about it was wrong. She should be ashamed of herself.
  • I agree. I would have reported the incident to the tutors superior's. As such a thing could seriously dent the reputation of the place employing them.
  • I thought it was a terrible thing for the tutor to do. I was surprised to see the letter on the letters page though - it was worded as though she was asking for advice. Hopefully she'll get some as people respond.
  • The tutor should have spoken to the student at the course and asked her permission then.
  • I was shocked by the letter and feel the tutor should be named. We had a new member join our writers' group last week and when he wouldn't read anything from any of his work in case someone stole his idea, we were flabbergasted, as we couldn't believe that anyone would think of doing that. Perhaps he was the anonymous letter writer? He didn't turn up this week!
  • I'd be livid! I wonder if any of the narrative/dialogue (some of which was presumably mentioned on the course) was used. I'd be tempted to tell the course organisers and the magazine concerned, and say that there were several people on the course who can back you up. As for the 'free critique', why on earth does the so-called tutor think she's in a position to offer one?
  • Is anyone going to write to Writing Magazine about this? Just thought I'd better check. :-)
  • edited March 2009
    You go ahead, Jay, if you want to. I was thinking of it, but doubt I'll find the time. I expect they'll get quite a few! :)
  • (I've written about one of the other letters.)
  • I read it and thought it was a disgraceful thing to do!
  • I haven't got this month's magazine yet, but this sounds awful...when i ran a small online writers group, this was exactly the problem i came across, a rift between members just from the other using the same names for his characters as the other writer had, but an actual tutor taking a student's ideas is disgusting. I would definitely want to know what 'institution of learning' this writer was at, and who the tutor was...not knowing, makes me want to steer very clear of going on writing courses just in case if that tutor was the one in charge.
  • Verica, I do know someone who was worried that their manuscript might fall into someone else's hands and be stolen, when it got lost recently.
    (At least with a computer file it can tell you when it was worked on, which might help if it came to proof.)
  • Can't the tutor come up with her own ideas? If this is true, it's dreadful. Has the tutor found a publisher? Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I hope she doesn't.
  • edited March 2009
    Do you think the magazine would forward individual emails or letters to the writer of the letter? He might then let people know who it was.

    He probably mentioned the tutor's name in his letter, but they didn't print it in case of litigation.
  • I came up with an idea about ten years ago, Barry Totter, a boy wizard - and guess what??
  • edited March 2009
    And then you changed his name and wrote about him using the nom de plume of J K Rowling? :)
  • lol.....Anthony Horowitz actually wrote a story about an ordinary boy from an awful family finding out that he was a wizard, and going away to a wizarding boarding school....it was called Groosham Grange and was published long before Harry Potter. He says he bears no grudge about it though because he went on to write the Alex Rider series which he felt was better than Groosham Grange.
  • My boys liked Groosham Grange.
  • http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/reader/0744583446/ref=sib_dp_pt#reader-page is the Look Inside of Groosham Grange
  • I have read books that have similar themes to other novels I have read, but it would be very unfair to accuse the author of plagiarism. Two people can come up with a similar idea. For all we know Rowlings never even read the Horowitz book. It could be a coincidence.
  • edited March 2009
    Many years ago I wrote a children's musical. My heroes and heroines were on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. They became trapped by 'Wraiths'.
    When I re-read my draft years later I found my description of the Wraiths almost perfectly matched Rowling's ‘Dementors’. I threw my script aside in despair. :(
  • No one's likely to trust her again with their story. She can't even claim that she didn't realize it was someone else's idea.

    Heather, if you - or anyone else - want(s) to write to Writing Magazine, please do.
  • I've not read the letter, and I'll agree it's not the best way to behave if the story is true: but what no one here has pointed out is that there's no copyright in ideas, only in the original expression of those ideas. There is only a very limited number of different stories and plots out there: there will always be some duplication even among writers who haven't ever seen each other's work.

    It is possible that the tutor just had a similar idea to the student and that no "stealing" has taken place at all, but that the student isn't experienced enough to realise that.
  • edited March 2009
    HPRW - This is a quote from Helen Yendall's letter:

    ".... just six weeks after the course the tutor writes to you and admits she has 'a confession to make'. She was so taken by the story that she wrote it up herself, has submitted it to a magazine and it's just been accepted for publication. She sends you a copy of the story and it's exactly as you had described in your plan. There is, the tutor points out, no copyright on ideas but in way of a thank you she'd like to offer you a 'free critique'."

    The letter writer had been to a one-day short story writing course where they were given a one-line idea for a story and asked to 'brainstorm' for 10 minutes with their neighbour.

    So the one-line idea came from the tutor, but the whole plan for the story - beginning, middle and end - which the letter-writer says was "fleshed out with some considerable detail" and which made the rest of the group laugh - has been pinched by the tutor.

    Presumably the tutor only wrote to HY because she realised she might see the story when it appeared in the magazine and cause problems for her.
  • No, HPRW, the letter claims that the tutor wrote to her six weeks after the course "and admits she has 'a confession to make'. She was so taken by the story, that she wrote it up herself". She even sent her a copy of the story and the letter writer says it was exactly as it was described in the plan the two individuals on the course had done, and had shared with the group (as part of the excercise from the sound of it).
  • You got there just before me. :)
  • The moral being if you have a good idea keep it quiet.
    When I was at Swanwick we had to discuss ideas for children's stories and I had come up with a brilliant idea well I thought it was so I kept to it myself.:)
  • Perhaps the mag might mention that the letter prompted a furious tirade of postings on Talkback in support of the letter writer!

    The Harry Potter series reminded me of the Worst Witch series when I first heard of it. It's not the idea though, it's the way she does it. The characters, the humour, the inventiveness, all the little details of the magic world - I love it! (Lucky me - I get to read 'The Philosopher's Stone' to my 7 year old daughter and then move on to the next room to read 'The Half Blood Prince' to my son every night!)
  • When you read somthing that someone else has wrote you can come up with ideas but never has the thought crossed my mind to copy it .
  • I've had friends discuss stories ideas with me, wanting my feedback on ideas and improvements that could be made, and if the ideas appeal to me, i make sure i work on another genre in my own work so i don't inadvertently get their ideas entering my own work.
  • Jenny and Carol, thanks for that.

    Putting my Troublemaker's Hat on: strictly speaking then, not only did the tutor do nothing wrong (no copyright on ideas etc), she also realised that feelings might be hurt and took steps to lessen the upset.

    Reasonable Hat: there are two sides to every story (ha!) and I'd be very interested to know what the tutor has to say about all of this: things are rarely as straightforward as they seem.

    Writer's Hat: I'm not comfortable with this at all.

    If I were the writer concerned I might well tell the people who arranged the course, and ask if this is how all their tutors behave; and I'd think about contacting the magazine the story appeared in and let them know. It might not be a breach of copyright but it's not a nice thing to have done.
  • That's just how I feel HPRW.

    Things don't have to be illegal for them to be wrong!
  • We all agree on that.
  • It would be interesting to know the title of the magazine, the theme of the story and which issue it's going to appear in!
  • There is quite alot of bits and pieces in Harry Potter that have their origins in other things.

    I don't personally think that its ethical (forget the legal stuff about copywriting ideas) for a tutor to take their students idea, lock stock and barrel, complete the piece then submit it for publication.
  • Any tutor doing a writing course should be expected, even sign an agreement, to behave ethically in relation to work discussed during the course.
  • I agree with you, Kateyanne; keep your best ideas close to your chest until they appear in print. I say this because another writer might like your ideas/concept/characters, and not so much copy as use parts. Then they may be faster than you, get published, and when your own work comes up for consideration it is seen to be old hat - someone has just done something very similar. It has taken me four years to write my first novel no thanks to circumstances beyond my control, with a concept which I know to be original (I have been told this by an editor), and don't want to miss the boat.

    The only problem, of course, is that it may not be of much interest to the target market.
  • Good luck with it Dwight. Your right to keep things to yourself, you just never can tell. I thought of a wonderful story with a totally apt title of 'bulletproof' then, blow me down, three months later out comes a film called 'bullet proof monk!' It makes you wonder if stories are out there in the eather and loads of us pick up on them all at the same time! (by the way my idea didn't have a monk in it!).
  • a friend (many years back) wrote a story about an alien who came to live with a family, then ET hit the screens ...
  • It seems to be the same in Hollywood: A Bug's Life and Antz both came out at the same time, and I'm sure there are lots more examples though my mind has gone suddenly blank!

    Remember though that ultimately there are no original ideas - 'it's the way you tell 'em', to quote a certain Irish comedian whose name also escapes me...
  • Frank Carson, Lou.
  • this sounds awful. But several of the publishers who came to talk to us said that fashion is a strange thing, and just the way that life,is, the stories in the newspapers, the fashions, the crime, the mood of the country, seems at times to bring in a swathe of almost identical stories in one postbag... even if they can't be tracked to any one thing going on. So it does happen.

    I took a picture book out of the library a year or so ago. It used EXACTLY the same words as some used in a very acclaimed book by a popular writer, i know that was based on an extant rhyme but really this was very, very similar, and published years previously.
  • I've told an anecdote to the person who told it to me. It's easily done.
  • I was browsing the books in a local supermarket a few months back and to my horror I saw a paperback with almost the same title as my novel. I couldn't resist a peek, and reading the blurb on the back, I was relieved it was totally different in genre, but it was still spooky.
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