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Submission Impossible: Are Reject Scripts Really Being ‘Recycled’

March 8, 2014

According to the BBC , Tom Cruise, Paramount Pictures and several production companies are about to be sued to the tune of one billion US dollars by script writer Timothy Patrick McLanahan. McLanahan claims that a script he wrote in 1998 entitled ‘Head On’ was rejected after submission, but ended up being passed onto Tom Cruise’s agent and subsequently made into Mission Impossible IV ‘Ghost Protocol’ in 2011. Would an agent do this? How would you prove it? Does the literary world and its archaic submission process need a bit of a shake-up?

$1 Billion is a lot of money and it’s a fair bet that this suit will fail when it comes up against the behemoth that is Tom Cruise’s legal team. So what are we to make of this?

If you consider how many manuscripts are passed to production companies, TV companies and literary agencies every day, only to be rejected, then there is a possible opportunity here for an unscrupulous operator. I myself have submitted many and have often come up against the wall of hyperbole encountered by so many other hopeful writers.

Literary agents and publishers complain endlessly about bulging mailbags full of manuscripts. This always seemed a little odd to me as, essentially, this is a free resource given blindly by writers who have absolutely no idea what will happen to their work should it be rejected.

Any literary website will tell you that you have got about as much chance of being picked up by a publisher as you have winning a dolphin at a meat raffle. But still, starry-eyed hopefuls who have spent years of their lives slaving over a novel or script dutifully follow the instructions given by every literary house;

  • No-unsolicited work
  • Don’t email,
  • Send a letter first
  • Don’t print on both sides
  • Double-space your text
  • Enclose a stamped, addressed envelope so that we can reject you for free!

And what happens to all these manuscripts? Well they get sent back to the author, right? If the author requests it, then yes, but it wouldn’t take much to steal an idea would it?

This may sound a little far-fetched to some people but I can tell you from bitter experience that ideas remarkably similar to those I have submitted myself have appeared subsequently in scripts and TV shows. I don’t know for certain if the ideas (some of which were almost carbon copies) were stolen or it is simply a coincidence and it is this doubt that is the real crux of the matter.

How do you prove that it is your idea? How do you prove that someone else didn’t think of it first? This is especially true with something like an action film where, with all due respect to Mr McLanahan and Mr Cruise, the plot points are fairly generic. Even if you produce a manuscript from years earlier sealed in wax, it’s unlikely that the plot, characters, dialogue and locations are identical. If the idea was stolen these things would have been changed and this makes it even less likely that you will win your case.

The problem here is that unpublished writers are much maligned and marginalized. Writing is thought to be the province of high minded and connected people who haven’t the time or the inclination to entertain your whimsical notion of joining their ranks. Anybody who has tried and failed to get a novel published will know what a closed shop the literary world is and how publishers and agents can be cold, hostile and treat you with insensitivity like some kind of nuisance when all you’re trying to do is fulfil a dream. This knocks the stuffing out of many people causing them to give up, or doubt their abilities, and this is why it’s so easy to take advantage of them.

I don’t know what will happen in the Tom Cruise case, but I do know that the submission process has to change or it is almost inevitable that plagiarism, copyright theft and the trade in ‘borrowed’ ideas will take place as a side-effect of the human condition. Writers need more protection and the paper trail must be more transparent using tracking or anti-plagiarism software or other measures to keep originality and intellectual ownership sacrosanct.

By Tom Radford – Content Director