It's been one of those weeks for losing things - some of which I found in the place my husband moved them to! But what has worried me the most was losing a USB drive (some call it a thumb drive or memory stick) that was the back-up to all my files on my laptop. I have bought a new one, and created a new back-up, but what really bothers me is where the USB might have gone. Did I leave it at that Sydney conference after finishing my Powerpoint? Have I left it at work somewhere? Have I dropped it somewhere? Do I still have it (somewhere safe but un-findable) or does someone else now have it?
On that USB are at least two unpublished novels, in various drafts, plus a number of unpublished and published poems and short stories. I still remember, years ago before laptops and USB drives were so common, a poet friend of mine who lost a whole folder full of poems and drafts of poems. 'What if someone finds them?' she said, 'and sends them out to magazines and journals under their own name? How can I prove they're mine?' In fact, she couldn't, whereas at least now they're dated on my computer to show the earliest version belongs to me.
The question is: who would take a bunch of 'found' manuscripts and try to publish them as their own? How could they think they might get away with it? This is where the internet is both a hindrance and a help. Yes, the scurrilous wanna-be could take my manuscripts and submit them under his/her own name, and they may even get them published. Possibly they'd be published on some site I'd never know about, unless I decided to do a Google search using some of the key phrases. It may well pop up! If they submitted a manuscript to a reputable publisher, however, and managed to get the book published (this is all assuming that manuscript was one I wasn't currently working on and submitting myself), it's quite likely I'd find out, sooner or later. What then?
The first thing I would do is approach the publisher and explain the situation. There's no doubt that the publisher, presented with clear evidence, would have to withdraw the book from sale and tell the wanna-be never to darken their doors again. Word would get around. Wanna-be's name would be mud. I'd probably use the internet to alert everyone to the situation, and warn them. The fact that there is usually a clause in a book contract where you have to specify the work is your own is guaranteed to get you into major legal trouble if you lie about this!
There are situations where an idea just seems to 'out there' in the ether - recently we accepted a poem for Poetrix magazine, and I realised that someone in our group had just workshopped a poem on the same topic. But she had written the poem while away on holiday, long before we'd had our editorial readings and discussion. It was a coincidence. On the other hand, a writer might see a new book recently published, read it and say, 'I can do better than that', and write their own version of the plot or subject. No harm in that either, especially if you do bring something new and completely different to the topic. (The problem is if you don't, you'll be accused of 'jumping on the bandwagon'!)
There's plenty more to talk about here - my mind is buzzing - but I'll add more shortly.