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I have some theories that I've contrived, some are philosophical, others are logical or physical, and some are just jokes about life told in a theory format. But I'd like to use some of these theories in some of my works. I didn't wrote any article or anything like that about them and never "officialized" them in any way. Now, what would happen if I turn them public, explaining their functioning, for the first time, through my stories?

Isaac Asimov has the laws of robotics, and, although not exactly a theory, I don't know if he did anything official besides just publishing his story that uses it, but everyone knows that those three laws are Asimov's.

But is that enough to prevent plagiarism? Are there more examples of theories first published in a story?

  • I'm a little unclear on what you mean by "theories". The laws of robotics aren't a theory, they're a set of rules meant to be essentially an engineering safeguard. Do you mean something more like "concepts" or "frameworks"? – Neil Fein Nov 3 '17 at 1:50
  • @NeilFein Well, by "theory" I mean "an attempt to systematically explain in a new perspective how something unexplained in life works". Or maybe "framework" fits too. In fact the laws of robotics are not exactly a theory, I just used as an example of concept attributed to a writer. – Yuuza Nov 3 '17 at 2:18
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    @BrunoLopes, getting accredited with a theory is not something you can do for yourself. Isaac Asimov never referred to the three laws as "Asimov's Laws". He simply made them a part of his books and when people liked them, they started referring to them by his name. Clark's law is pretty much the same. My advice to you is that if you have some spectacular words in you (on any subject), write them down and let the world enjoy them. If the world returns the favor by naming them after you, great! If not, at least your words fuel your books to be better than they would otherwise be. – Henry Taylor Nov 3 '17 at 2:22
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    @HenryTaylor I see.. So there's no need necessarily in making it "official", just making it known and being interesting, and the attribution will come naturally if the theory worth it. – Yuuza Nov 3 '17 at 2:49
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Generally the manner of publication makes no difference. If you have published it, you are its author and have the right to get credit for it. This is actually one of the rights that are covered by an international treaty and can't be transferred or lost.

That said...

People will not credit you for work they do not know about. If your philosophical theory is published in a form that few philosophers read, you probably will not get credit, if somebody later independently gets the same idea. That said, eventually somebody will notice that the idea was already published independently before and you will get credited. And plagiarizing work you don't know is even harder than crediting it. Still, it has happened that people have later used an idea they read in an entirely different context and not realized where they got the idea.

You will only get credited for what you actually published. If you fully developed a complex theory and used it in a work of fiction, it is unlikely you used all the work you did on the theory. Long philosophical explanations tend to stall the story to say the least. So it is possible somebody else will get credit for stuff you developed, but did not publish, related to your theory. So if you want full credit for all the work you did, you should publish it somewhere where publishing all the work makes sense and is relevant. Works of fiction are rarely that.

IANAL, though.

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It will have validity in the sense that if the theory is original AND you get published so your theory can be found by strangers, then somebody doing diligent research should find you as the earliest author.

That said, the world is unfair. In the realm of mathematics, which we should think would be logical and rational, there are dozens of famous theories invented by mathematician A but named after mathematicians B, that DID NOT invent them, sometimes even when B never attempted to take credit.

Primarily this is due to the fact that B did more with the theory, or presented it more formally AS a theory with better logic and proof, or it was in B's writing that real world consequences and applications for the theory arose. In other words, B did the work to make the theory famous or important, so the community of people working with such theories refer to it a B's theory, not the A's theory.

(I should also note there are cases where a female A has done all the work of the theory, and a male B supervisor has gotten all the credit for it; I believe there are a few such cases in early Astronomy.)

In a work of fiction, it will be difficult to present a philosophy that is argued like a person with a PhD in Philosophy would argue it. (Perhaps as an addendum in the back of the book you could). Such things contain copious references to prior philosophical work, careful explanations when the new philosophy runs counter to existing philosophical ideas and touchstones, and like all fields of advanced study, they have their own 'language' of terminology and reference they use as shorthand for others that already understand this.

In general, the practitioners of a field in which one can receive a PhD do not tolerate amateurs, simply because amateurs do not know the most basic rules of their game and how to present a new idea. Physics is rife with this, people that think they have an idea about how the universe works that is laughably naive and violates known physics in the first paragraph.

So even if your theory became well known, it would probably be forever attached to the real-life philosopher (B) that translated your musings into a formal philosophy, or at least made it famous. Leibniz was the first to publish and most likely invented most of the calculus we use today, but Newton gets the credit for it, because Newton was world famous and insisted he did it first.

Or your theory might get a generic name (e.g. Integration by Parts is a theory invented and proven by Brook Taylor, but is not named after him; although the Taylor Series he invented is named after him.)

Finally, copyright does not exactly protect an idea, it protects the words used to express that idea. If somebody takes your philosophical ideas and is able to express it in their own words with their own invented terminology, they may not violate your copyright at all.

For example, the idea of a Wizard's School in a magical place is not a protected idea, even though that idea is central to the Harry Potter series.

In fact Lev Grossman had the same idea, published in 2009, and his work is the basis of the recent TV series "The Magicians"; still running. It is far more adult fare with adult students (more like college than grade school), including numerous sex scenes and sexual references, but the basic idea that students attend classes and learn magic to solve their life-threatening problems is there.

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There's not really any official process one can go through to assert ownership of a concept; all you can do is express it as memorably and as well as you can, so that people will be more likely to associate it with you. As Delany, paraphrasing Emily Dickinson, once wrote, "nothing survives except fine execution". Plenty of people have good, even brilliant ideas, but if they aren't well expressed, no one notices or cares.

As someone who both reads and writes philosophically, I've experienced this from both sides. I've seen my own theories paraphrased without attribution, out in the world. When I've followed up, however, people have generally been very gracious about correcting this. I also have plenty of theories bouncing around in my brain that I know aren't original, and some of them are easier to track down than others. The above Delany/Dickinson quote, for instance, is a strong concept, but I was only able to re-locate it because of how distinctively it was expressed.

As far as putting theories in fiction, that's a common way to disseminate ideas (especially if they're in a form that might not meet academic philosophical peer review standards). Philosophers from Plato to Sartre have dramatized their concepts, and writers from Dostoevsky to Walker Percy have used philosophical concepts as the foundation of their novels.

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The word "theory" is sometimes used differently in popular writing than in scientific writing*. A theory, scientifically, is an idea that is supported by many independent lines of evidence. The evidence is so robust, and derives from so many sources, that to disprove a theory is very, very unlikely. A theory is a massive beast - one that you can hang many hats on.

Gravity is a theory. To prove that gravity does not exist would be most remarkable indeed.

Evolution is another such theory. The evidence supporting it is huge, from multiple disciplines. When people in the public sphere say "Evolution is just a theory" they are demonstrating that they do not understand the word 'theory.' Imagine someone saying "Gravity is just a theory." (In fact, yes it is 'just' a theory, but a theory is a damn near irrefutable thing.)

If what you have is an idea, that is probably more likely to be a hypothesis, not a theory. A hypothesis is also a wonderful thing, it is something that can be tested and if verified over a number of experiments and disciplines and researchers, it may in fact reach the level of theory.

Other people may have the same idea rattling around in their heads, and it is possibly even published somewhere ... and you yourself mayn't know, but go ahead and publish it. Good ideas are valuable. Change the world! It's worth it.

*(Except possibly in mathematics,)

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