Recycling ideas. Everyone does it. But is it okay?

This is how most creatives see it: “I dreamt up the idea, I lovingly nurtured it, I painstakingly toiled over it, I passionately pleaded for it, but the client killed it. So I’ll just recycle it later.” 

What creatives seem to forget is, they signed an agreement when they were hired that says their ad agency owns it. So, technically, it’s not theirs to recycle if they leave that agency.

But the rules seem a little hazy. Recycling is incredibly common. Pretty much every creative I know recycles their old ideas from time to time. Yet, we never seem to hear of agencies suing them over this kind of thing. So most creatives feel safe recycling.

Perhaps agencies don’t sue because, by the time they find out about it, the recycled idea has been produced by another agency and is on air. So it’s too late to claim ownership. Or perhaps because it makes them appear petty and desperate. Like the kid who ignores a toy until another kid picks it up. Then suddenly they’re fighting over it.

Whatever the reason, it’s like a big hole in an electrified fence, where everyone seems to be stepping through without injury. But one day, someone will get fried. So be warned. When you recycle an idea, there is some risk of getting burned.

Despite that, it may be a risk your willing to take. Personally, I have old ideas that are too good to let die and nobody has done them yet. Some of them are a few years old so chances are greater that memories have faded and nobody remembers them.

Not that I don’t strive to come up with new ones. Of course I do. Ninety-nine percent of the time. But sometimes an old idea is a perfect fit.

Here are three things to consider when recycling. 

1. Realize that you are breaking the agreement you signed.

2. You most likely collaborated on the original idea with a former creative partner who now works someplace else. He or she will definitely feel slighted if you recycle the idea without their knowledge, since they’ll likely not get credit for it. The proper etiquette is to call them and ask if they’d be okay with it before you represent it. Chances are, they’ll be cool with it. But it’s polite to ask first.

3. Take into consideration the length of time that has transpired. Anything over two years is unlikely to cause a conflict. Memories fade. Anything five years and beyond is highly unlikely to cause a problem. But, after five years, ask yourself: is the idea still fresh?

Those of us who have been around a while accumulate a file cabinet full of unused ideas. I specifically remember working on a project with a very seasoned freelancer, who brought ten amazingly thought out ideas to the table in a single day. I thought to myself, “Either this guy is the most prolific creative ever or there’s a bunch of recycled ideas here.”

I think there needs to be new rules governing intellectual property. Individuals should be allowed to legally regain ownership if the ideas they generate are unwanted by their employers. After all, generating ideas is difficult. Paying for them is easy. Why does the individual do all the hard work and the agency get all the ownership, even after they toss them into the trash? It’s just a natural instinct for a creative to claw through the landfill, find his cherished idea, dust it off and file it away for later use.

Since laws are not likely to change, it makes sense for each individual to request an amendment to the agreement they sign when they’re hired that stipulates they will regain ownership of their rejected ideas after 24 months. Or something like that. The hiring agency might go for it, if they want you bad enough. Better yet, consult your attorney before signing if you’re serious about it. Or simply assume the risk later. It’s up to you.

Personally, I’d think twice about contacting your old agency about an old idea you dreamed up while under their employment. They’ll probably say no by default. After all, you signed the piece of paper agreeing to the terms of employment. They own your ideas. 

Most creatives take a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach to recycling. It seems to be working. I just hope nobody gets burned.