Plagiarism of Ideas

This site, though entitled Plagiarism Today, deals mostly with content theft issues. As such, its articles are wrapped around copyright law and the nuances thereof. While most plagiarism, especially online, does involve some element of copyright infringement, there is a whole category of plagiarism that I am yet to delve into, the notion of idea plagiarism or the theft of an original concept.

However, the reason for this isn’t because such plagiarism isn’t common, damaging or frustrating, but because it revolves around a completely different set of laws and quickly enters into a gray area that is difficult to effectively wade into. Because, even though copyright law is sometimes filled with difficult to define variables and other problems, plagiarism of ideas walks us through so many more.

Patent Law

When we start talking about the theft of an idea, we generally start talking about patent law. Patent law, according to Cornell University, “Grant an inventor the right to exclude others from producing or using the inventor’s discovery or invention for a limited period of time.”

That time period is much more limited than copyright, which lasts up to 70 years after the creator’s death, and generally is only valid for 20 years total. Also, unlike copyright, patents are not granted immediately once the idea is “created”. Patents must be applied for with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (of course, this is only if you are an American or want your patent to be valid in America) and doing so can cost anywhere from $400, for a simple do-it-yourself application, and tens of thousands of dollars for a complicated application filed with the help of a reputable patent attorney.

Though patents are, generally, thought to apply solely to material inventions, the concept has been applied to software and new techniques therein. This has been met with a great deal of controversy and calls for reform, however, these calls have been largely unheeded.

However, patent law does not apply to creative works. One can not patent the idea behind a book, painting or musical piece, even if the idea is completely original. This has frustrated many online who have had their original ideas, though not necessarily their original works, stolen.

In short, it’s left them with no recourse, even as someone else blatantly rips off their concept.

Problems with Patents

The problem with patent law is that, unlike copyright, it is very easy to accidentally violate someone else’s rights. Where violating copyright, generally, involves knowingly taking and using someone else’s work, it’s possibly to violate patent law with an idea that you created independently just because someone thought of it earlier and obtained a patent for it.

This has enabled companies, which are often called “Patent Trolls” to stay in business without producing a single product, but simply by licensing patents that they hold and suing those that, often unknowingly, violate them. Blackberry’s recent legal problems are an excellent example of this issue.

The problems with expanding the idea of patents to the artistic world quickly become clear. If two poets came up with an idea for a new kind of sonnet independently, one could sue the other for damages even though the person being sued might never have heard of the person filing against him.

Every writer, musician, artist, designer, actor and speaker would be working in a creative minefield, waiting for the day they accidentally stumble across someone else’s patent and are sued for it.

In short, the problems that patents face when dealing with traditional inventions become a thousand times worse when applied to artistic professions.

So, no matter how much every artist wishes that their ideas could be protected, the reality of the situation is that creativity and expression would suffer far more from such a protection than it ever would be benefited.

As the saying goes, the only binds that art thrives under are the ones it places upon itself.


In the end, while I have no doubt that idea plagiarism, especially when it is clear cut and obvious, is painful and costly, the cost in protecting artistic ideas is far greater than the potential damage from them. In the end, every artist is better off knowing that, though their ideas might legally be able to be stolen, they themselves won’t be blindsided by a lawsuit for something that they thought was original.

The best thing that we can do is realize that, in the eyes of the law, the value of a creative work is in its execution, not the idea behind it. As such, we have to take it upon ourselves not only to be original, but to carry out our visions the best possible way.

After all, if the idea truly is yours, then you should be able to carry it out far better than any imposter. While it’s cold comfort when you’re seeing the rise of imitators, it is where the truth lies.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright, Patent, Copyright Law, Patent Law, Blackberry, Software Patents[/tags]

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