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Participating in writing-related sites (like this one, and critique sites) sometimes involves describing a plot problem or sharing an excerpt from my work. So I'm usually vague because of the fear that someone might steal my ideas. I already know that I'm being paranoid, but I've worked too hard to have my work stolen.

If I post my book ideas on sites like this one for critique, can my work be stolen? What should I do to protect myself?

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I think this type of question is better suited for meta than the main site. But short answer, always assume that other people can and may use the idea. Honestly i wouldnt even worry about it, a short excerpt tells nothing about what you want to convey or how you will convey it, even if someone extrapolates an idea from it its still likely to be two very different end products, especially when you factor in individual writing styles, choices, editors, target groups ect –  RhysW Jan 5 at 1:39
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Have asked in chat if people think this belongs on meta. I think it's an edge case that could be on the main site or on meta. –  Neil Fein Jan 5 at 2:55
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Nate, I've edited your question to make it a little more general; this isn't the only site that your concern would apply to, and this way it's clearly about writing sites and not just this one (which some might interpret as a policy discussion that belongs on meta). If my edit has changed your intent too much, please roll back or edit further. Thanks, and welcome to the site. –  Monica Cellio Jan 5 at 3:13
    
Updated my answer. Also, welcome to the site, Nate! –  Neil Fein Jan 5 at 3:29
    
Thank you Neil and Monica. So sorry that you guys have to keep cleaning up my messes. I'll try to be more specific. –  Nate_Writes Jan 5 at 4:44
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2 Answers

Yes, it's certainly possible that posting on the internet could lead to someone stealing your ideas, here or on any other site.

But will this actually happen? There are risks, however small, to showing your work to anyone. Most writers that publish know the benefits of peer feedback, and take the risk anyway.

Many people have reaped benefits from posting excerpts on the web for critique. On any site that you're considering posting, I'd suggest browsing the critique questions already up. Decide for yourself if the does a good job at giving feedback, then you can decide if the benefit to you is worth the risk. Or if it's worth the uncertainty and unease it might cause to post.

Peace of mind

Do you feel that it's likely that someone will steal your ideas? If posting stuff on the web for feedback will make you uneasy, you have the option of sticking to in-person writers groups, or forums that are password-protected, or even an email-only criticism group.

Framework and execution

There's a difference between book ideas and an excerpt you'd post for criticism.

The writing world is filled with people who come up with ideas for novels, or a grand epic series of novels. It's so common that we even have a name for it: world-builder's syndrome. The framework behind a novel is important, and it's vital that the structure of a story be interesting and sturdy. But the execution is what's truly unique. An excerpt of actual writing posted on the web is a piece of that execution. It's probably unlikely to be stolen, but I don't think anyone can prove this or even cite you vague numbers.

Legal issues

None of this is meant to say that people shouldn't post for critique here, but they should be aware of the possible issues:

Posting work on the web could, theoretically, cause problems with first-publication rights (what you would give a publisher). Small excerpts posted on the web are unlikely to be a problem, though. (Anything posted here would likely be an early draft in any case.)

And, closer to home: Posting on a Stack Exchange site automatically converts the what you post into a Creative Commons work - including the excerpt you post - which can be distributed without your permission. I don't think this means you give up your copyright to the excerpt, but I'm not a lawyer and can't speak to this. This issue has been discussed, but and I haven't seen a definitive answer to this problem.

Are critiques allowed on this site?

Yes, they are, and there are guidelines. But what they boil down to: A few paragraphs are optimal. A sentence or two will be closed immediately (we don't critique anything without context). Most importantly, you have to ask specific questions. There's more info on this in our critique guidelines.

Keep in mind that any site you post on may have their own requirements.

Conclusion

You'd probably be fine posting work on the web for critique, but there's no certainty. You need to decide that for yourself.

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Even when no-one steals my ideas, I don't want the bones of my book exhibited on the internet for all my readers and critics to pick over.

I only post ideas and excerpts in closed forums with a small number of members that I personally know. If I hand out text for feedback, I have the recipients sign a non-disclosure agreement. Also I give paper copies instead of digital files, even if I have to send them by post, which makes digital distribution more unlikely, especially since I ask for my copy back.

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It this because you have been burned before or because you are taking every precaution you can to never have it be an issue? –  RhysW Jan 5 at 18:56
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I began to use the internet as a student in 1996, when only universities had access. No-one had internet at home, and whatever you posted you felt like no-one you knew would ever see it. There was no Google, indexing what feels like your whole life. Back then, I simply didn't think that a few years later everybody would surf the web with their smartphones. Today, 18 years from those first posts, all posted under my real name, sometimes people I barely know ask me about those posts and the past life they reflect. It is unpleasant, like strangers looking in your window. –  what Jan 5 at 20:16
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