6 Questions Writers Ask about Copyright and the Law

(Column by Chuck as well as WD co-editor Brian Klems.
Please note that these guidelines below, while helpful,
should not take the place of formal legal advice.
We are editors, not attorneys.)

Imagine you’re at a writers’ conference. You’re getting ready to pitch that great novel idea to a bunch of powerful agents. As you walk up to the microphone, you start to notice all the other writers in the room staring, pens and pads in their hands. That’s when the questions start flooding your head. Should you have secured a copyright before spilling your idea like this? Will other writers steal your concept? Can they do that? Will the agents ignore your pitch because the book title comes from a Billy Joel song? Don’t panic—a little paranoia is almost expected. It’s natural for you to want to protect your work from others. Along with protecting your work from pilferers, you also have to protect yourself from being sued for legal infringement. As you compose your work and enter into the publishing world, it’s vital to know how to navigate the murky waters of copyrights, libel and other contractual small print. Here’s the scoop on some commonly asked questions about copyrights and other rights.

Do I need to register my work with the U.S. Copyright Office to hold a copyright on the work?

No. Your work is copyrighted the moment it hits a tangible medium—everything from your scribbles on a piece of paper to your musings on your Internet blog are protected. Putting the word “Copyright” or the copyright symbol at the front of your text is optional. Using the Copyright symbol on your manuscript is a topic of contention, though, as agents and editors see it as the sign of an amateur—because they obviously know your work is protected. Try to avoid inserting the symbol or the word “Copyright” when querying agents and editors, but remember to use it when passing your work around—such as to untrusted peers, other writers or on public forums (i.e., the Internet).

To sum up, your work is copyrighted the moment you write it. Getting it registered in DC gives it something else — a “super copyright,” if you will.

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So since I do not need to “super copyright” my work to have basic protection, is there any real incentive to doing so?

It depends on who you ask. If you ask us, it’s not worth it. (Your publisher will copyright the work when it gets published.) If you ask a lawyer, they would say Heck yes, because that’s what lawyers do.

Though it’s not mandatory, formally registering your work will certainly help your cause in court should that scenario occur. If someone plagiarizes your work and you take the thief to court, the possible compensation and damages awarded to you are greater if your work is registered.

Our basic advice is this: If you’re really interested in keeping your work safe, worry less about copyrights, and worry more about where you’re pasting your work for all to see. Do not put the work out in a place where you feel its unsafe. Remember: Agents and editors don’t steal stuff; writers steal stuff.

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I’ve heard that if I mail a copy of the printed work to myself, that proves copyright. Is that true?

“Poor man’s copyright” is a questionably effective tactic where you mail yourself a manuscript and never open the envelope, thereby “proving” that you had written your work by a specific date. This is what the U.S. Copyright Office said about the idea: “The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a ‘poor man’s copyright.’ There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”

Nowadays, it’s cheaper and easier to simply e-mail the work to yourself, which you should be doing 1) for copyright protection, and 2) just to back up your own work. Although this process does not take the place of an official copyright (a “super copyright”), like the U.S Copyright Office confirmed, but it can indeed prove when exactly your words were written, and that may be valuable ammunition in a legal battle.

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Does a copyright protect ideas?

No. Let’s say you write a sci-fi story about a soldier who battles aliens on the moons of Neptune. Your idea—or concept—cannot be copyrighted, and therefore, can be used by anyone. If someone wants to try their hand at the same basic premise (soldier, aliens, Neptune), they may, but they can’t use your characters, dialogue or passages from your text. If specific things from your story are stolen or copied, you can sue—but just because someone ripped off your basic concept doesn’t make them culpable.

What are the legal ramifications of reproducing song lyrics in a manuscript? Also, can I use a song title as the title of my book?

Song lyrics are copyrighted, which means you need permission to use them. Although there isn’t any specific law about how much you can take under fair use, it’s common for the music industry to say you need permission for even one line of a song. Publishers will usually assist in securing necessary permissions for you during the publishing process.

Differently, song and book titles of any kind generally aren’t copyrightable—the only exception being those rare titles subject to trademark or unfair competition laws. Titles that fall in this small category are closely tied to a specific artist. (Think “Yellow Submarine” or “Stairway to Heaven.”)

In a work of fiction, what restrictions exist on using the names of professional sports teams, TV networks or real people?

If your character is a Dodgers fan that watches CNN and walks past Rupert Murdoch on the street, you generally won’t have lawyers calling for your head. You can use these well known proper names in your text as long as you don’t intentionally try to harm the reputation of that person or product.

Normally you won’t catch much grief for writing neutral or positive words about real people, places and things. It’s the negative press you provide that could be considered trade libel or commercial disparagement—both ugly phrases that could cost you plenty of cash in a court of law.


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12 thoughts on “6 Questions Writers Ask about Copyright and the Law

  1. MusiCelt

    If you do want to copyright your manuscript, you wouldn’t want to do it before it has been edited by a professional and finalized, would you? In that case, how can you prevent a beta reader, editor, or third party who has seen it from changing a few things so it’s not an exact copy, and submitting or publishing a manuscript or screenplay that is essentially your story? Thanks.

  2. janetevanovivhofficial@gmail.com

    How do I copyright my work? The very act of putting your book, article, story or poem on paper (in a “tangible” form) places it under your copyright. You can formally declare copyright ownership by typing the words “Copyright (year) by (your name)” on the first or title page of your manuscript (e.g., “Copyright 2001 by Moira Allen”). You can also substitute the copyright symbol for the word “copyright.” It is not necessary to register your work with the Copyright Office to protect it. (For more information on rights and copyrights, see Understanding Rights and Copyrights.)Should I get an agent? This depends to a great degree on what type of book you are submitting. Often, you do not need an agent to submit a nonfiction book to a publisher. More and more fiction publishers, however, do require submissions to be agented, so check the publisher’s requirements first. If you find that a large percentage of the publishers in your chosen genre or subject area require agents, then you should look for an agent first.

  3. roda havet

    I’ve been writing on and off since I was fifteen. But I have not showed anyone my work until I found the Annual Writing Competition. Which I enter one of my poems and hoping it was good enough. But on another note I was wonder where can I truly post my work so it can be seen by others. I have always been afraid that someone would take my work for there own. And I’m trying at this time to compose them into a book. Any advice would appreciated. Thanks!

  4. Steven Hutson

    A poor man’s copyright is really a silly concept. For one, it costs only $35 to register your work. Secondly, those other methods can be faked. You can mail blank pages to yourself without sealing the envelope, and then insert different pages after the postmarked envelope returns to you. And it’s very easy to fake the dates on emails and computer files. Only a registration with LOC, really proves you wrote it first.

  5. Steven Hutson

    Yes, an unregistered (c) is valid. But in the event of infringement, you don’t want it just to be valid, you want it to be defensible. An unregistered (c) is harder to defend, because it’s harder to prove that you wrote it first.

  6. koroleaa

    Useful information. I’m curious, Chuck, is the pitch session at the upcoming Writer’s Digest Conference public as described in the article or one-on-one with the agents and editors? I was under the impression it would be one-on-one, to avoid this very issue.

  7. Russ64

    I also have a problem. If our debit cards and bank accounts can be hacked, then what prevents our work from being stolen from an agents file? Not that anyone may want to, but the problem still exists. And, what do they do with my manuscript if it’s rejected? When in doubt, copyright…it only costs about 30 bucks and protects your work without question.

    And if agents sneer at a copyright symbol on my work, it’s their problem, not mine.

  8. atwhatcost

    “Remember: Agents and editors don’t steal stuff; writers steal stuff.” I disagree with the second half of this. Writers don’t steal stuff. We write. Plagiarists steal stuff. 😉

  9. William Cory

    Something not covered above. If you do not register your copyright with the register of copyrights within 90 days of creation of the work, you are barred from suing for punitive damages in case you should face an infringement situation. After 90 days, you may only sue for statutory penalties, which provides nothing for the plaintiff. FYI. I am not a lawyer, and i am not giving legal advice … but you can read this yourself in the Copyright Office’s official publication.


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