If You Think Your Idea Was Stolen, Think Again

Ian Gurvitz is the author of "'Hello,' Lied the Agent: And Other Bullshit You Hear as a Hollywood TV Writer," which was published last month and from which his essay is adapted. He also wrote and directed the forthcoming independent film "L.A. Blues."

About 15 years ago I wrote a pilot for Fox, based on thoughts rattling around in my head at the time. I spent months on the script, hacking my way through the gantlet of studio and network notes hellbent on improving the script to death.

The show eventually made it onto the schedule, but I was later sued by a total stranger who claimed I’d stolen his idea. I forget whether he alleged to have pitched something similar, or was driving past the Fox lot as its giant idea-stealing antennae picked up his brain waves. Either way, the suit never amounted to anything. Nor did the show, which was canceled after seven episodes.

There have been many similar cases over the years--Art Buchwald’s “Coming to America” suit being among the most memorable--but they all underscore one of the most prevalent myths about show business: Hollywood steals your ideas.

This is nonsense. Hollywood does not steal. Hollywood copies, imitates, panders and plagiarizes, rips off and robs, but Hollywood does not steal ideas for one reason and one reason only--it’s not ethical. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.) Unless someone rips the title page off your script and puts his name on it (which has happened), Hollywood usually does not steal ideas because, in Hollywood, ideas are worthless. Even if someone snapped a cellphone picture of your computer screen at Starbucks, they couldn’t steal your idea because ideas, by themselves, mean nothing.

Execution is everything--how a TV show or movie is written, cast, directed, edited, scored, even marketed. It’s not the idea; it’s how you do it. Or when you do it. Or when it’s pitched. Or who’s pitching it. Every year there are thousands of ideas developed and scripts written. There is bound to be some concept overlap.


A couple of years ago, I worked with friends on a pilot. We pitched to four networks. Four passes. Then one of those networks did the identical show, with the star we’d suggested but with another writer.

After that, I pitched another show I was passionate about. Passes all around. So I wrote it on spec and pitched it with a script attached. Pass. Soon after that, I read that the same network was developing the identical show. With another writer.

Last year, while writing two more pilots and a book about TV development, I went online to get a sense of what shows were in the works. Including my two little scripts, there were 352 projects among 34 networks--138 comedies and 148 dramas--including 37 cop/PI shows, four doctor shows, eight lawyer shows, several “X-Files” “Alias” or “24"-style shows, a reality show with the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, a motivational show starring Mr. T and one called “America’s Cutest Puppies.” Did someone rip off someone else’s idea? Doubtful.

I’ve been working in TV for about 20 years. I’ve had some good runs on successful shows, had three of my own shows crash and burn, written some scripts for love and others for money, usually while dealing with a never-ending series of infuriating network notes. But in all that time I’ve never seen an idea actually get stolen. I’ve seen them killed. Just not stolen.

So to anyone who feels like their idea has been ripped off, chances are it hasn’t. If you think Hollywood stole your idea, maybe what you need to think about is having another idea. And if you just came to town with the one, then maybe your next idea should involve changing occupations until you come up with another one.

Hollywood cannot steal your idea. It can only steal your soul.