When someone steals your original idea and publishes it a hundred years before you were born

“Anticipatory plagiarism occurs when someone steals your original idea and publishes it a hundred years before you were born.” ― Robert K. Merton

In an episode of SuitsShe Knows | season 2, episode 1 – a TV series about corporate/business lawyers which is brilliantly written, directed and acted – a woman sued the publishing company for which she used to work for stealing her idea for a book which she was planning on writing and giving it to one of their authors to write and publish.

She is furious. She feels that her intellectual property was stolen from her. She is heartbroken by the betrayal of her boss whom she considered a friend and confidante. But most of all she is terrified because she fears that the idea which she had may be the only idea she will ever have, and this fear causes her to believe that her life, her future as a published author, has been stolen from her with the theft of the idea. She keeps repeating that belief as her reason for her lawsuit.

This lawsuit is standing in the way of a merger, and realising the powerful position which she is in, this woman refuses all settlements however generous they are, turning her quest for justice into personal vendetta. Since her life is ruined, she will ruin the company, her ex-boss’ career… and the lives of all its employees. Her righteous indignation needs mass human sacrifice.

harvey specter quote

The lawyer in charge of trying to end the lawsuit, while having a conversation with his grandmother, wherein she reveals that a story which she told him about herself was actually a fabrication based on Hansel and Gretel, realises that even when an idea seems original it often is just a variation on an existing idea. He decides to apply this concept to the lawsuit, and manages to find three books by different authors whose stories use the very same idea as the one being fought over in the lawsuit which were published by the publishing company years before the time when the woman claims she had the idea.

Thus her idea is not original at all, she just thought it was because it seemed that way to her when it popped into her head. Chances are she read those books, then forgot she had and that’s from where the idea originated.

The woman almost does a Rumpelstiltskin. Her precious name has been found and spoken. Her version of reality popped by the sting in her own tail. She too is was idea thief, a plagiarist.

“A wise man will always allow a fool to rob him of ideas without yelling “Thief.” If he is wise he has not been impoverished. Nor has the fool been enriched. The thief flatters us by stealing. We flatter him by complaining.” ― Ben Hecht

There was a lot more to the storyline of this episode, in fact this was a just side story to the main plot. But this is the bit which stood out for me, the part I remembered and thought about afterwards.

Copyright and plagiarism, idea theft, intellectual property, imitation, forgery, and other versions of this concept have been a part of my life and conscious awareness since I was a child.

And not just because a part of human development is mimicry and learning by copying others, but for a million other reasons too which I’m not going to go into for brevity’s sake.

The reason I’m writing this post is because I was encouraging a friend to create a blog and they said this to me – Ursula you are SO BRAVE: people might steal your ideas, use your pictures and you always have interesting things to say, even when you say you haven’t! – which is a wonderful compliment. Thank you.

My answer is in what I said in my Copyright blurb on my blog:

Anything which I post that is my own creation is under a Creative Commons license.

With my writing you are free to share, alter, and do what you please with it.

With my photography you are free to share it and use it, but not alter it, mind you if you did I probably wouldn’t find out anyway.

A link and attribution is always gratefully appreciated.

Anything which I post that is the creation of others will be credited to their creator, and linked to source.

If I post something of yours, and you wish for me to remove it, let me know and I will do so immediately. I do not intend to offend or upset, just share the things which inspire me.

A couple of people have asked me if I minded if they used my ideas, and I always reply with something along the lines of – Take what you need, what inspires you, and make it your own, after all what you see in my idea is simply recognition of an idea within you. Make the idea yours and grow it, develop it, share it and pass it on. – I always appreciate the request. Thank you.

I’m not being as selfless or generous or careless or stupid or naive as it may seem. I have been told that I’m altruistic, and some people have observed that I appear to have no ego. Appearances and impressions can be deceptive, not necessarily in a bad way.

I have thought this attitude through logically, using my kind of logic. If I worry about people stealing my ideas, photographs, words, then I will start to restrict the flow of my self-expression with concern. I do have an ego, I’m not being altruistic, I am being selfish, not necessarily in a bad way.

I do value my ideas and creations, they mean a lot to me and are deeply personal.

I also notice if someone has been inspired by them. I enjoy spotting that, because it is creativity in motion and I get to see it move through me and into someone else, then through them into someone else. And it came into me through someone else, who got it from someone else.

I don’t consider any of my creations to be unique to me…

“There was no crime in unconscious plagiarism; that I committed it everyday, that he committed it everyday, that every man alive on earth who writes or speaks commits it every day and not merely once or twice but every time he open his mouth… there is nothing of our own in it except some slight change born of our temperament, character, environment, teachings and associations” ― Mark Twain

If you were to take one of ‘my ideas’ from a post on my blog, such as saying that a relationship with a Narcissist has – a gift in the curse – I can give you the history of where that came from and credit most of those who inspired it and explain why and how. I have actually done that in a few posts. But it’s not something which I need to do because as soon as anyone reads those words – a gift in the curse – you know exactly what it means and have a million reference points for it in your own life and in the lives of others. It is a universally human concept which our most ancient ancestors had and those in the future will also have. It has been passed down from generation to generation.

Being human requires us to learn this lesson and to do the alchemy which makes the best out of the worst, turns tragedy into opportunity and so on.

If there is something which I consider too precious to share, mine, mine, mine, and mine alone, I simply don’t share it. I don’t need to share it, chances are someone else, maybe several someone else’s past and present. also has it, had it, and may share it, has already shared it.

Jim Jarmusch

I also consider other people to be personally accountable and responsible for their actions. Most people are, those who aren’t… well, they’re going to do whatever they are going to do whether I copyright my stuff or not. They have the right to be that way, I have no intention of trying to change them, that’s not my problem, if I have a problem with it, then I change myself. It’s the easier path to a solution.

“I’ve been imitated so well I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.” ― Jimi Hendrix

I do find it curious though, that the people who are most paranoid about other people stealing and plagiarising their ideas are also the ones most likely to steal someone else’s idea and pretend it is theirs without ever giving credit to the person who inspired them. It’s not really a curiosity, it’s typically human, we are always afraid of others doing to us what we do to others, we think others think and are as we think and are.

“Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent me.” ― Anatole France

But as much as we have similarities, we are not the same, we are unique and individual, we do however share in that bubbling and boiling pot of inspiration known as the collective consciousness. Don’t believe in it? Lots of minds don’t.

“What is originality? Undetected plagiarism!” ― William Ralph Inge

I like to browse goodreads, and use it as the source of many of the quotes which appear in my posts. It’s a great muse when the idea bank is empty. When I search for quotes connected to a particular concept it always amuses me to find the same idea repeated by several different authors, and I wonder how many other people have had the same idea but whose quote is not on goodreads:

“Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research.” ― Wilson Mizner

“Stealing from one author is plagiarism; from many authors, research.” ― Walter Moers

“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.” ― Steven Wright

“Forgive plagiarism, copy one person’s thoughts, you are a plagiarist…. if it is by more than one, it’s a council! (may have “borrowed this, too!”)” ― Robert Armstrong

“To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.” ― Michael Hopkins

“if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research.” ― Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon has a book – Steal Like and Artist – and a website – austinkleon.com – where he shares the fruits of his creative… stealing!?

Austin Kleon

Perhaps he was inspired by…


Maybe he even credits his source of inspiration… I haven’t delved deeper than a skim (uh oh).

My favourite idea of the free sharing of ideas – pulled from the World Wide Web of information sharing created by Tim Berners-Lee – is this gem:

do not covet your ideas

If you covet your ideas you might end up like the woman in that episode of Suits who believed that she would only ever have one unique idea… and if it gets ‘stolen’, then what?

I wonder what would have happened if her idea had not been stolen and successfully used by the established author.

That author turned her idea into a bestseller, which fed her illusion that she was an unrecognised genius, once possessor of a brilliant and unique idea. And since she worked in a bookstore after quitting her job at the publisher she saw people buying the book every day.

What if her boss had not stolen her idea, what if she had been given the opportunity to turn it into a published book, and what if that book ended up not being a bestseller, what if it went unappreciated by the reading public and critics who anoint authors with critical acclaim?

Some ideas are meant to be shared, because giving life to them is a team effort. The greatest ideas which live on belong to all of us and we each play a part in keeping them alive so that the idea evolves and the inspiration flows.

“The original idea of the web was that it should be a collaborative space where you can communicate through sharing information.” ― Tim Berners-Lee


  1. Ursula: LOVED this.

    I spent so long in the world of academia where people jealously guard every nugget of thought as though it were the holy grail of inspiration and innovation. Having studied the stories of humanity for as long as I can remember, I can honestly say that everything is a reiteration of something that came before. We can approach things differently, combine elements uniquely, mix up characters and cultural specifics… but when it comes down to it we are eternally influenced by the stories of others.

    And this is a GREAT thing. Our continuing collaborations just serve as evidence that we are all connected and looking to tell the same stories.


    • Thank you 😀

      I admire what you are doing, it is a beautiful cause to champion, and you do it with great insight and passion.

      In some ways what you are seeking to achieve reminds me of Alice Miller and her passionate desire to bring awareness to poisonous pedagogy.

      The human race does seem to keep repeating the same patterns, but there are subtle shifts in the repetition. It’s as though each time the cycle starts again, there is a new element to it, the old order changes ever so slightly as we each bring our personal conscious awareness to it.

      I think our personal experiences have to change us individually first before we can join with others to change something universally. We need that kind of a personal connection to an idea so that we embody it, are motivated at a deep inner level, and fuel it with our individual energy and passion.

      Passion is a powerful force.

      There’s a cartoon I came across in one of my searches which sort of touches upon this, the caption reads – Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.

      Of course that’s a bit bleak and a generalisation, but there is a drop of truth in it. I think there are different ways to study subjects too, a personal experience helps to make historical events come alive in the now rather than being something floating in a distant past which has lost context.

      I think the more we share our ideas and work together to develop them, brainstorming and merging our knowledge and information, understanding what ideas mean and what they inspire, we slowly create unified gestalt which may lead to a zeitgeist.

      Thank you for sharing yourself 🙂


      • Oh, I hope you’re right. I understand that the movement will be slow- but can’t help but feel as if we are running out of time. That cartoon- bleak though it may be- demonstrates a sad reality, one that I face every single time I have to defend the study of the Humanities (which is pretty much a constant thing).

        You are absolutely right in that we need to feel a strong personal connection to motivate us to affect change. I do, you certainly do- and I’m discovering that there is a community of people out there that has identified the need for a zeitgeist.

        Interesting you mention Alice Miller. I think there are things going on in our pedagogical systems these days that are poisonous- in a different sense than Miller discussed, admittedly- and extremely dangerous. We need to overcome our collective intellectual laziness and wake up to the fact that we are being manipulated- from the get go.

        With passion like ours, perhaps we can manage to break this pattern of repetition significantly enough that we avoid recurrences of the worst of our historical mistakes. All we can do is try.

        Thank you back at you! Voices carry- I always say. And yours is more insightful and eloquent than most.


        • I think perhaps the feeling of running out of time may be more to do with the strength of your passion than an actual deadline, passion for a cause tends to feel urgent, it’s part of what powers it and creates momentum. If you didn’t feel rushed, you might not be so determined, you might be tempted to take your foot off the gas a bit. It’s similar to when a job has a specific short deadline versus one which has a more vague distant due date, the former makes us very motivated and we work furiously towards the goal, the latter may get pushed back for more pressing matters and we may even forget about it, our passion to do it will be diffuse… until it becomes urgent because we’ve delayed doing it and a specific deadline looms with a shorter time attached to it.

          So the urgency fuels your passion making it stronger and more determined to have an impact, and that inspires all those with whom you come into contact. They are motivated by your motivation. Which is what you’ve been experiencing through your blog and how your posts affect those who read them. You are making an impact and motivating others with your passion and cause. Your voice is louder and is carrying far, being heard by those who feel strongly too, and their voices join yours… one day it will become a collective shout for change, maybe sooner than you know considering some of the events which have happened connected to you sharing your voice.

          Thank you for your kind words 🙂


          • Thank you for saying that. I do feel a change in the way the wind is blowing- and the awareness that there are many others who feel the same way I do is keeping the motivation level on the upswing.
            Enjoy the day!


            • Thank you, you too have a lovely day 😀

              What your passion has started will build in momentum, there will be moments when it dips, we all need a pause or we run out of steam, but often those moments are when someone else steps in to give us a boost, joining their energy with ours. It’s a unifying experience 🙂


  2. Ursula,

    I’ve thought the same thing as others…that you must not have an ego. Mine is still quite strong and there are many times I wish I could just make it disappear, but keep enough of it to retain my personality (the “good” parts :))

    This article made me laugh, reflect, and as always…after reading it, I feel I’ve taken a relaxing walk through a park on a Fall day. Something about your writing always makes me feel that way. Thank you.


    • Thank you, that’s a lovely image 😀

      You have an inspiring ego, and you use its power well and don’t abuse it which is admirable. And considering your experience of having had a traumatic relationship with a narcissist which could have destroyed your ego or irrevocably damaged it, to come out of it with a strong ego is quite a feat and a sign of a healthy ego and an indomitable spirit. Your share the fruits of your experience, and that is wonderful! You have a generous ego 🙂

      For the most part, ego is an ally. Sure it gets in the way sometimes, but that’s life!

      I do have an ego, it just doesn’t feel the need to assert itself unless someone else’s ego tries to dominate it, then it puffs itself up and becomes quite big and heavy 😉


  3. That ‘you will remember from school bit’ got me because I did protect my exam answers from being copied. I do not think a child in a ‘regular’ classroom setting is in a position to gain much moral or spiritual good from allowing others students to cheat. Just how far do you think s/he would get with the teachers and parents, assuming s/he was old/intelligent/courageous enough to question academic practices. How does allowing other students to copy your answers help them learn anything or allow teachers to gauge their success at learning curriculum. (I always allowed other students to borrow and/or copy my notes and I would answer any questions they had and try to help however else I could, short of letting them see my work during exams.)
    As far as your own comments, I am curious what you think about people’s livelihoods being threatened by ‘plagiarism’. Mystic Medusa, for example, was recently hacked and her blog entries copied to another website which was charging money for HER work. Jonathan Cainer has had his work plagiarized in a major Canadian newspaper.
    Just wondering….


    • That’s interesting, you kind of did what I did when I watched that episode of Suits and focused on one part of a whole, the part which struck me personally.

      I liked the Do Not Covet Your Ideas quote because it encourages free flow and sharing of ideas and information which is the ethos behind the creation of the World Wide Web. The cheating in class part didn’t grab my attention other than the symbolic aspect of the gesture of using your arm as a defense – I find body language fascinating – because it never occurred to me to cheat when I was at school and my classmates didn’t do that with me, so I don’t have a personal point of reference other than detached observation – one of the schools I went to had a cheating on tests scandal but it didn’t involve me and it didn’t involve looking at other people’s answers while taking the test.

      As for plagiarism, I was not advocating it at all which I thought was clear in the post, but maybe it wasn’t. I was touching upon the concept of unconscious plagiarism – that many of the ideas which we have are universal ideas, part of the collective consciousness since time immemorial.

      Mystic Medusa shares her ideas freely on the internet, as does Jonathan Cainer (I really only know his work from his appearances on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny), and they rely as I do (even though my sharing on the internet is minuscule compared to them) on what I said in my post – I also consider other people to be personally accountable and responsible for their actions. Most people are, those who aren’t… well, they’re going to do whatever they are going to do whether I copyright my stuff or not. – which is what all humans do, we rely on others to be respectful and that includes respecting what we share publicly. Most people do.

      To answer your query re: What I think about people’s livelihoods being threatened by plagiarism

      The short answer is that intentional, consciously aware and deliberate plagiarism such as the one you have described is a crime. There is a copyright law which is designed to protect against such a crime, but all laws rely on people respecting them. When people don’t then the authorities are called upon to uphold them and prosecute those who don’t.

      The long answer would require for me to explain the part which I touched upon but did not expand upon in the post – Copyright and plagiarism, idea theft, intellectual property, imitation, forgery, and other versions of this concept have been a part of my life and conscious awareness since I was a child. – as it would have made the post too long and complicated.

      My father was an artist whose passion for sharing his creative vision was blighted by having his copyright infringed. He was involved in a high profile lawsuit, and he lost to the person who infringed his copyright because my father had a typically artistic temperament and the person who infringed his copyright was a cold and calculating businessman. The business side of the art world is ruthless. The lawsuit forever damaged my father’s trust in sharing his creativity and sent him spiraling into a very negative place. He self-destructed his career after that. The businessman went on to prosper thanks to his crime. However much later this lawsuit was used to amend the rights of artists. Not that this helped my father, but it has helped other artists to maintain control and copyright of their work.

      My father’s misery, his sense of being betrayed by the world he lived in, his self-destructiveness, his passion lost never to be recovered, affected my life dramatically – I was 7yrs old at the time. It was traumatic at the time for other reasons as well which I won’t divulge, and coloured everything which came afterwards. So it’s very personal. It did inspire my father to innovate, but he never trusted the art world again and he suffered for it.

      Still think I advocate intentional, conscious, and deliberate plagiarism?

      What intrigues me is that I sense there is a more personal story to your comment, and if you feel able to share, I would love to know what it is.

      Thank you for sharing what you have, I appreciate it.


      • No personal story, really. Interestingly, last week in Canada national stats revealed students cheating and plagiarizing widely and remorselessly: a big todo has ensued. In education, I think the only one the cheater cheats is himself.
        Tonight on Colbert Report heard interview with Jaron Lanier re this book – http://www.jaronlanier.com/futurewebresources.html – and his conceptual solution that ‘It is time for ordinary people to be rewarded for what they do and share on the web’ sounds about right to me.


        • The Colbert report on Jaron Lanier sounds interesting especially as it ties in with an article which I was reading recently in Wired magazine written by Tim Berners-Lee. The headlines on the magazine are rather dramatic – The Web is Under Threat. It’s Time to Reclaim It. Tim Berners-Lee Created the Web. He’s Urging You to Save It. He discusses how he viewed his creation then and how he views it now as the world wide wide celebrates its 25th birthday. He speaks about copyright and all the rules and regulations which have come along narrowing what we can and can’t do, and the influence of governments and businesses on a format which was designed to link and share information freely and easily. By the people for the people… but governments and businesses and capitalism and paranoia have taken it over, yet they are made up of people too, and the internet these days serves many different purposes.

          Like with all human inventions which take on a life of their own when they become part of the public domain, they change and evolve according to what is going on in our world, in society, in personal lives. Supply and demand, etc. The more people enter the fray and bring their opinions, needs and ambitions to bear upon it, the more complicated and complex it all becomes.

          I think it has enabled a huge change of lifestyle for many. I mean you can live in the middle of nowhere and still get internet access and connect yourself to the rest of the world. Which is a mix of good and bad. The smallest pebble can create tidal wave ripples, sometimes in a positive manner and sometimes in an OTT messy misunderstanding way.

          One internet News site which I visit has a section each week where it catalogues all the false stories, hoaxes, misunderstandings and mistakes circulating around which have become popular, thus spreading wrong information far and wide.

          For me being able to share through social media is a reward in and of itself, but then I am not looking for more than to be able to do what I do as I do it. Those who are seeking more have that option. Ebooks have opened up a wonderful outlet for writers, to go beyond the business of publishing and get their work out there for those who want it, which allows them to share and profit from their work. There are many ordinary citizens who report the news which often does not make it onto mainstream News sites, programs and newspapers and gets ignored or missed by the News media, which allows the rest of us to access real local news and get an insider’s view of an event happening in a part of the world as it is happening. That is a great bonus for those interested in the world and what is going on beyond and behind what we are being told is going on by those who package it for the masses (I’ve been watching the TV show – Newsroom – cynical and interesting although a tad soap operatic where the characters are concerned).

          For every good side of something there is a bad side and an in between the two.

          Thank you for sharing 🙂


  4. Every original idea comes from source, and that source has a source which has a source, that came from source, and while it was a really cool trick to walk on water, I think it’s much more impressive to reinvent the wheel!…Thanks for this post…I love your work…


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