This week I was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement by an acquintance. We were discussing the state of agents and reps in the city. She recounted the story of one man whose business cards used the address of a lobby. That was his office. As sad as that is, he would make for a great character in a Coen Brothers film.
When we got around to the idea of me taking a look at one of her projects she said I could as soon as I signed a NDA. That's when I promptly told her I don't sign NDAs. She was uncomfortable with that. Past experience, she had been burned. Which I understand, still I stood firm.
Since February, I've been asked to sign NDAs by six different folks, and each case I declined.
Over the last decade, the number of writers and creatives asking others to sign NDAs has grown. I would say apparently grown, yet the number of articles and videos against the proliferation of NDAs out on the web tells me I'm not crazy.
Matt Douglas CEO of Punchbowl wrote the piece NDAs Are Stupid (Mostly) in April. This excerpt encapsulates why I'm pretty much anti-NDA (most of the time):
When an entrepreneur approaches an investor for money, it is unlikely that the ideas and technologies discussed are absolutely novel. Most likely the investor has already seen something similar, and if they haven't they soon will. If an entrepreneur is really concerned about someone "stealing" the idea, then the idea probably isn't that good. A successful startup is all about execution, not novelty. Case in point: how many social networks existed before Facebook came along? Mark Zuckerberg and friends simply out-executed everyone else.
The idea that any idea is new is one that too many hold on to, much to the deteriment of their own projects and careers. Costume heroes and villians with fantastic powers and that experience outrageous adventures are thousands of years old. Characters named Hercules, Sundiata and Anansi existed centuries before fictional Kal-el arrived on earth to become Superman. A band of people coming together for a common purpose has seen various incarnations from The Canterbury Tales, to Jason and the Argonauts, to King Arthur and his knights.
It is all about execution. For me to steal anyone's idea, something you cannot copyright, is deplorable. The real damage would be if I take someone's entire script and claim it as my own. That's not something I have time to do, or even the inclination to do. Stealing is time consuming. It's also insulting to my own self worth. If I don't believe enough in my own gifts as a writer that I have to steal, what kind of writer am I?
Here are the main reasons I don't sign NDAs:
- I don't have time to keep track of the NDAs I sign.
- Until I hear the idea, I'm not sure I want to read the script. Even if I like the idea, I may not have time to read the script.
- I, like others, have seen writers use NDAs to threaten anyone who works on a project that is even a tiny percent similiar to what their working on. That's not a door I want to open.
- Depending on the project, I may need to go to others for advice, guidance, additional ideas or to partner with. If I can't go to the people I trust who make me a better writer and I work with on the regular, it's no deal.
- I don't ask others to sign NDAs when they see my work.
- Not every idea is good, not mine, not yours.
- It could be not just bad, it could be profoundly bad. NDAs make ideas appear more legitimate, which makes giving feedback difficult. Legal mumbo jumbo encourages entrenchment, not open-mindedness.
- NDAs are just a piece of paper. Even if I sign it, I can still take your idea and run with it if I want.
- Your project may not be far enough along that signing an NDA even makes sense.
- If you're asking me to sign an NDA, we don't know each other well enough to collaborate on any level.
That last point is a biggie. Writers who are asking others to sign NDAs have often shown and shared their work like the Bubonic plague and they got burned.
Not to be cruel, it's a harsh truth that 99% of the time, when writers recount being creatively pickpocketed, many of us see the writer at fault. Time and time again, it's almost always someone who the writer doesn't know well, hasn't worked with on a previous project, or enough projects, or has done shady things in front of the writer, and the writer has let those minor moments pass. That last one really gets to me when a writer admits that the person they thought they could trust, was someone they knew others couldn't always trust.
Until I'm sure we're on the same page, that we share the same creative values and attitudes, I try not to jump in with anyone deeper than I feel comfortable, if I jump in. Saying no more often than saying yes is the best protection writers can use.
The second to last point is also major. It is an uncomfortable feeling when anyone shares the germ of a concept before it has been developed into anything substantial. That uneasiness comes either because there already exists projects like the half-formed idea, or you know you're likely going to work on something all too similar in the future.
Someone tells you they're working on a thriller about a girl who loses her memory makes you recoil as your brain ticks off three films in that vein. In fact, IFC has an article called Lost Memories: Our 10 Favorite Amensia Movies. This person could do a little bit of research and see that their idea is not original. They can also discover that these films are so radically different that it's really about the execution. If they're good, how they write that story will be more important than the genesis of that story.
I'm not saying NDAs aren't important and useful. There are times when signing an NDA will be absolutely needed and required. If you think you'll need an NDA, do some research, better yet, get a lawyer, to ensure you're using it judiciously and in the best of circumstances.
With this, I'll leave you with a video: