I’m currently writing a spec-pilot loosely based on a novel — not a best-seller, but one people have read. I plan on sending out queries to agents to try and get represented, but I don’t know if I need to ask permission by the author to use the ideas expressed in the novel.
The idea I’m borrowing is basically “the assistant works for the evil boss” and I don’t plan on using the same character names. I also intend on adding more characters and plots. But…and a big but, is I want to keep the title of the book as the title of the show. Seeing as nothing is really the same, I’m confused if I need to ask permission.
There’s no gray area here. You are flat-out stealing, and brazenly at that. Stop.
You have a few options at this point. First and least defensibly, you can change so many of the details (and the title!) that the story feels like it’s “in the vein of” but not actually based on the book in question. National Treasure isn’t based on Dan Brown’s books, but it’s comfortably and legally within the same microgenre. It’s not the same story, but it’s the same kind of story.
In your case, there’s endless precedent for evil bosses. Do you own version. Don’t crib anything from the book at all.
A second choice is to actually get the rights. This feels like a longshot — why would a somewhat-successful author give an unproduced writer the right to adapt his book for TV? But it sometimes happens. I’ve written about how to do it.
A third choice is to simply acknowledge on the title page, “Based on the novel Title by This Author.” This doesn’t give you the right to make this pilot. You couldn’t sell it. You couldn’t produce it. But you could feel reasonably secure that no one would come after you, the same way legions of Buffy fan-fic writers don’t worry about Joss Whedon sending cease-and-desist orders. Particularly in television, there’s industry precedent for scripts that are simply writing samples. That’s what you’d have.