The issue of copyright is one of the most heavily-debated in the writing world. Authors, especially young ones, tend to be sort of clueless in this area, and often take advice from those who also don’t know what they’re talking about. So I’m here to set the record straight. (Buckle up—this is a long read!)
Disclaimer: As with every post on this blog—but especially this one—I want to remind you the reader that this is in no way the only way to do things, and I am not providing legal advice. This is just what I think is the best thing to do, from my experience in the publishing industry. If you disagree, please comment at the end of the post, and let’s discuss! More legal info available here.
To start, I should address why copyright is such a tricky subject. The actual act of copyrighting your book is a no-brainer. It’s a simple process, and it’s very necessary—but that’s not the controversial part.
The issue with copyright is that, too often, writers hide behind copyright because they are deathly afraid of being plagiarized. They copyright their books too early, wasting money (because you have to re-register every time you make a change more substantial than fixing a spelling error) and time. And the truth is, copyright really doesn’t protect people from stealing your work—or your ideas.
The Myths of Copyright: It Doesn’t Really Protect You
For starters, you cannot copyright ideas. That’s why you see so many “knock-off” movies on Lifetime and Hallmark that have basically the same cliché storyline as box office hits. The idea isn’t copyrighted, the composition is. So, while I’m sorry to break it to you: you can’t stop someone else from stealing your idea. It isn’t your idea.
Imagine if you could copyright ideas! Jonathan Swift would have been the only author to ever be allowed to write a deserted-island adventure story, and we’d be missing out on Castaway and even Lord of the Flies. It’d be a total disaster. It makes sense that everyone should get a chance to write their version of an idea, so as an author, you can’t be afraid of someone “stealing” yours. Again, ideas can’t be owned by anyone. They’re free for all to choose from.
When you copyright your book, you’re actually essentially registering a certain sequence of words as your own, and what that’s supposed to do is prevent others from being able to call your work their own, and profit from it. But that doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to.
And that’s because registering your book’s copyright doesn’t automatically solve the problem. You see, in the United States, as soon as you write something, it’s yours. You don’t have to pay extra to register it to be able to say that you own that writing—copyright is automatic. Legal copyright registration is just a little extra protection, in case you have to take that person to court to prove they stole what you wrote, but even that isn’t guaranteed to be successful. You still have to spend a ton of money on lawyers and legal fees, and that generally doesn’t help if they just share the writing and say it was theirs and make no money, because it’s really hard (and oftentimes not worth it) to argue “emotional distress” in court.
Now that you know what copyright does and doesn’t do, it’s time to take a step back and look at the reality of the situation. A lot of authors think they have to copyright their work before they share it with anyone, and that’s just not the case. It won’t protect your work like you think it will, and since you have to re-register your work basically every time you make a change, it can be really costly to register it every time you want to share it with a new beta reader or editor.
It just doesn’t make sense to copyright your book every time you make a change.
For this reason, my recommendation to authors is to wait until you’re almost ready to publish to register your copyright.
But what if you get plagiarized?…
The fear of being plagiarized is highly inflated by the infinitesimal number of writers that actually experience it. You are much more likely to be plagiarized by a high school student who turns your work in as a creative writing project so they pass the class than by another writer trying to steal your material—and the kids will do it whether your work is copyrighted or not.
Why don’t people want to steal your work? Because the book industry is a horrible one to be in if you’re looking to make money and be famous—which is what most people who copy others’ ideas (in general) are hoping for.
Remember, it is not the quality of the literature that makes it a bestselling book (terrible books have been bestsellers; I’m sure you can think of a few yourself!), but rather, the quality of the marketing that the book receives. By stealing your idea for a book, a thief is just creating work for themselves—and these people want the easy way out. You are much more likely to be scammed into paying for marketing schemes than to have your work stolen.
Yes, plagiarism happens. But it is not practical to get a copyright each time you change your draft. As I’ve said, more than a small spelling change warrants a completely new copyright, and that gets really costly.
Furthermore, you can’t be afraid of sharing your writing.
You need to share your work if you want to be successful, so you’re going to have to get over your fear of plagiarism. You have to share it with trustworthy, smart beta readers that can help you improve your copy. You have to share it with a professional editor who can help you get your manuscript ready for publication. You have to share the first few pages to convince buyers to buy it. You need to be okay with sharing your work.
My best advice to young authors is to do your best to rid yourself of the fear of plagiarism, and instead, do something about it. Prevent it by only sharing short snippets of your story, never the whole thing (it makes it worth less later when you try to sell it, anyway, if you share it all online). Additionally, whenever you hire a professional to help with your book, make sure you note their limitations in your contract. For instance, in my editing, I always include a clause in my contract that says that I will not sell, distribute, publish, or otherwise share the author’s manuscript with anyone, ever. It protects my authors, and they deserve to feel protected.
The moral of the story?
You can’t be so afraid of sharing your work that you never get it out there. Be smart, but don’t waste your money on copyright—that won’t actually help keep your work from being plagiarized—until you’re ready to accept the final draft. And remember: your work is yours the moment you write it. You don’t need a fancy government registration to tell you that.
If your book is in its final draft and is ready to be published, congratulations! You’re ready to register for your copyright, and here is the link to do so. Good luck publishing your book; I can’t wait to read it!