Good Question: How can I protect my ideas from copycats?

Dear Alex,

I created something that I am really proud of: a game called Storybowl!

I hold Storybowl gatherings locally, and I created a how-to kit so that people can create their own Storybowl experiences at home.

It thrills me to know that there will be Storybowls happening all over the world!

But… I’m wondering:

How can I make sure that people are crediting me as the creator when they teach Storybowl to others?

In other words, how can I protect my idea, and my work, without sounding like a jerk? Or should I just let it go?


Dear Andrea,

To answer your question, I reached out to one of my favorite humans on earth:

My dad, Don Franzen (who happens to be an intellectual property attorney – convenient, right?).

Here’s the gist:

Here in the USA, it’s difficult to claim ownership over an “idea” — at least, in a court of law.

That’s because copyright doesn’t protect “ideas” — it protects the concrete expression of an idea.

But! You can claim copyright for a published piece of original writing, or an expression of original methodology that has been documented in some way — say, in an e-course or recorded presentation.

Your Storybowl game sounds like “an expression of original methodology,” so you might be entitled to copyright protection.

Here are a couple of legal-ish things to remember:

: You can’t take any legal action to enforce your copyright until you officially register with the Copyright Office. There are clear instructions how to do this (it’s cheap, like a $35 registration fee) at:

: You might also be entitled to Trademark protection, if you have a logo or name attached to your creation that identifies it. (And since your product is called “Storybowl,” it sounds like you do!). Getting a trademark registered is a bit more complicated than copyright, but you can learn more at:

: To recap: for maximum protection, get those copyright and trademark applications filed. If you want to do it yourself, LegalZoom is a terrific website that can help. But of course, consulting with an attorney to get personalized advice on how to proceed is never a bad idea!

As my dad points out, filing the official paperwork is a good place to begin.

But sometimes, even after going to all that trouble, people will still copy, steal or use your work without giving proper credit.

What then?

There’s the “lawyer” answer:

“Add a scary, threatening statement to every product! Write a cease and desist letter! Sue their pants off!”

And then, there’s the “non-lawyer” answer:

“Give simple instructions on how to credit you properly, hope for the best, and then… let it go.”

At your Storybowl gatherings, for example, you could say:

“I’m so excited to share this game with you! It’s insanely fun and I hope that you’ll feel inspired to share it with friends, back at home.

Do me a favor: when you do, just quickly mention that Storybowl is a game invented by a cool lady named Andrea Scher.

It’s always awesome to get credit for your work. I’d really appreciate it.”

Inside the Storybowl product, you could add a short note to the first (or final) page, saying:

“Storybowl is a game invented by… me! Want to play the game at your workshop, company retreat or gathering? Do it! I’d love that.

And when you do, kindly mention that it’s a game invented by a rockin’ artist & storyteller named Andrea Scher.

Want to be super-awesome? Mention my website, as well:

Thanks for being MY hero. Getting credit for your work… feels so good.”

When you give folks crystal-clear instructions, most of the time… they will happily comply.

And sometimes, they won’t. And that sucks.

I’ve had my work stolen and miscredited more times than I can count — including one instance where a woman literally copied blog posts that I had written & pasted them onto her website, word for word, passing them off as her own.

I’ve learned that I can’t spend my days obsessively policing the Internet, hunting for copycats or people using my work without crediting me. It’s just not worth my time.

To sum up my advice:

Protect yourself by filing the necessary legal paperwork, if that feels like the right route to go.

Give clear instructions — and language! — to help people credit you, properly.

Trust that (most) people will comply.

And then…

Try to relax & let it all go, knowing that you’ve taken every reasonable measure to protect your creative work.

Being “on patrol” for potential copycats, 24/7, is a pretty dreary way to spend your life. It weighs heavily on the heart.

You’ve got better things to do.

Like tell stories.

And make art.

“Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.” –Ann Landers

Have you ever had your work stolen, or used without proper credit? How did you handle it?