Some time ago, a friend had an idea for a freelance piece and wanted to place it in her hometown publication. She asked my advice, asking...

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Some time ago, a friend had an idea for a freelance piece and wanted to place it in her hometown publication. She asked my advice, asking if newspapers ever steal a freelancer’s idea and assign it to a staff writer. I said not. The unwritten code of journalistic behavior forbade such behavior.

I was naive. She pitched the piece, and a few weeks later it appeared under another name. I hadn’t heard of this happening, but I was again ready with the advice. Just forward the e-mail pitch to the publication’s top brass along with a link to the stolen piece. Justice would be served and heads would roll.

But she said this was impossible. The original pitch was sent via regular mail.

For once I was speechless. “You. Did. What?”

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As it turns out, she had a good reason to send it along the old-fashioned way. If you haven’t written for a publication before, its editors will want to see past work. And the effect is more impressive when it arrives in a tangible form rather than a Web link.

While freelance writing can be a specialized craft, there are at least two cautionary lessons everyone can take away from this particular tale.

The first is, messages and collateral material don’t need to be mutually exclusive. For instance, while pitching an idea, you can include it in an e-mail with reference to the clips, photos or whatever that will arrive the next day through an express service.

This is a good way to double-team your recipients, so they think of you at least twice before focusing on a grand idea.

The second is to harness the power of the carbon copy (cc: ) line. If my friend had thought to cc: the publication’s executive editor with the proposal, it would have kept the recipient honest.

Not everyone would be comfortable with this, and they may think you don’t trust them. Well, you don’t.

A better way is to cc: your lawyer or agent (or someone posing as such) to leave a trail. While this process won’t necessarily survive the scrutiny of copyright court, it is one way to prove your ideas are your own.

Even so, it’s all about perception. Your correspondent may think someone is watching, forcing him to act honorably. Even if the publication didn’t steal your idea, its editors sure want to avoid the perception they did so.

Most people with any sense know e-mail is never private; anything online is on the record. But a little reminder can push anyone on the edge back into the integrity field.

For those who would steal a story, preventing the perception they are a thief may be a bigger deterrent than the fact that the action is actually wrong.

If I were to get a note cc:’d to the boss I’d be wary and offended. On the other hand, I’m not likely to steal an idea. People need to protect themselves first, then worry about offending acquaintances.

Perhaps the best action in this case is to also cc: the boss, to let your correspondent know you have nothing to hide.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at