idea.jpgI was watching “Working Girl” last week, for the fourth time, and the thing that got me most upset was when Sigourney Weaver’s boss character, Katherine, steals the brilliant idea that came from the lowly secretary Tess played by Melanie Griffith.

Tess McGill: [to Katherine] Look, you, maybe you’ve got everyone around here fooled with this saint act you have going, but do not ever speak to me again like we don’t know what really happened, you got me?
Katherine Parker: Tess, this is business. Let’s just bury the hatchet, okay?
Tess McGill: You know where you can bury your hatchet? Now get your bony ass outta my sight!

I felt such compassion for the secretary this time around because recently I was ripped off. A major newspaper stole one of my story ideas and gave me no credit. It was a series of events I initiated that led to this journalistic theft, but I was still hot with anger over the episode.

It’s not uncommon to have your ideas stolen in my profession, and I know it happens in a host of other industries, everything from science and technology to music. Individual workers have also asked me in the past about how to handle a situation at work when a boss takes credit for their idea.

I’ve heard different schools of thought on this.

One CEO told me a while back that it’s always a good idea to tell your superiors what you’ve been doing at work during verbal discussions or in a periodic email. But outright accusing a manager of idea theft won’t help your credibility, even if the thieving manager is exposed. No one likes a tattletale. That’s just the reality of life, on the playground and in the workplace.

I just came across this story on CareerBuilder that has some great tips on what to do when a co-worker steals your idea.

I toyed with the idea of exposing this editor, or at least sending off an angry email. But I decided against it. What got me thinking more rationally was a lot of self reflection, some common sense discussions with my husband, and most recently one line of text on a website for investigative journalism.

“Steal Our Stories,” is at the top of the home page for non profit site ProPublica.org.

The site editors actively encourage people to reuse their stores. The one difference here is they do ask for credit and I got nada from that big paper. But the main point is ProPublica wants to get their stories out there. They want to change the world, make it a better place by investigating the ills of society, writing about them, and then sharing them with whomever wants them.

The big question is, why do we do what we do in our jobs, or professions? I don’t think we ask ourselves that often enough. Everything has become so focused on financial gain that we’ve lost sight of why we got into our fields in the first place.

Being a journalist, I want to effect change. My story prompted an editor to assign a story to his reporter, and that story ended up getting a government agency off its backside. The ultimate goal was accomplished. I investigated a wrong, wrote about it in a small publication, tried to get editors at bigger publications to let me write the story, and then had one bigger publication just take the story for their own. And in the end, the story got a huge audience.

What if a doctor discovers a new technique that saves lives, shouldn’t that get out there? What if that doctor never gets credit for it? Should she or he be angry?

It’s an important question because it goes to the heart of why we do what we do at work.

I understand intellectual property protections for things that don’t impact a person’s health, or their livelihood. But I never quite got why drug companies were able to hold a patent on important medications for years. Why not have everyone make those drugs and lower the cost. I know the argument. They spend so much money researching such products that they need to make the money back. Well, have you seen drug company profits in recent years and executive salaries? I’d say they more than make that money back.

Is it all about the bottom line and our own glory.

I’m not defending unethical bosses (editors) who steal ideas in order to make themselves look good. But again, what’s the ultimate goal?

I didn’t get the glory, but I got what I set out to do, make a difference.

What’s your take? Are ideas ever really our own?

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