How Do I Copyright My Manuscript?

Q: I recently finished a novel and want to know what I can do to have it copyrighted. Is there a special process? –Sylvia R.

A: Whenever you put something in a tangible format—written on paper, typed on computer, chiseled on stone tablets—it’s copyrighted and protected under U.S. copyright law. No tricks. No magic. It’s as simple as that.

Of course, if someone steals your work and presents it as his own, the burden of proof falls on you to show that you created it first (and own the copyright). This, as you can imagine, can be tricky. To give yourself better protection you can also officially register your work with the United States Copyright Office. The downside is it’ll cost you roughly $35-45 per manuscript. The upside is that if anyone steals your work, you’ll not only have proof of copyright ownership, but also be able to sue for more money and damages.

(FREE DOWNLOAD: What is Plagiarism? – And other Copyright Law FAQs)

Now I’m not suggesting you officially register every story you’ve ever written, as that can get costly—that decision is up to you. But it’s certainly worth considering for any manuscript of great length and value to you.

Brian A. Klems is the online managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Have a question for me? Feel free to post it in the comments section below or e-mail me at with “Q&Q” in the subject line. Come back each Tuesday as I try to give you more insight into the writing life.

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5 thoughts on “How Do I Copyright My Manuscript?

  1. Michael Hagerman

    Good advice, but the US Copyright Act, as with all laws, adds a few more requirements for effective protection.

    While I’d advise that you seek legal advice for advanced copyright questions (I’m a lawyer but not a copyright law per se), a good place to start is the US Copyright Office website:

    Some key things to keep in mind:

    * To be protected by the US Copyright Act, a "work" must be "original" and "fixed in a tangible form of expression." (That mystery in your head isn’t protected – write it down.)

    * While copyright protection is automatically
    "secured" when you put pen to paper (or hard drive), you still need to take steps to legally guard your rights.

    * To protect your "work" against "innocent infringers" (people who don’t know that you own a work), you must add a copyright notice. Everyone has seen these, and you should be using them as a matter of course. While there are several variants (check the Copyright Office website), the "classic" is "© 2009 I.M. Author" at least once in your manuscript or other document. To feel even more secure, create a footer that adds that notice to every page. NO permission from the Copyright Office is needed to use a copyright notice.

    * While registration isn’t a legal requirement for a valid copyright, it is required if you have to file an infringement lawsuit. As the Copyright Office website also explains, timely registration can enhance your legal rights to additional damages and attorneys fees.

    * Finally remember that copyright only protects "works" that you’ve fixed in some tangible form of expression (paper, website, etc.) Copyright law doesn’t protect IDEAS. So it is that a New Hampshire attorney who submitted a "Mall Cop" script to a movie company is mulling over his legal options against that company. It rejected his script, but produced "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

  2. Anna

    I’m worried about what’s sort of the reverse. I’ve discovered two books with similar themes to my novel, one with a main character with the same unusual name. I’ve decided to change that name, but I’m still worried about how to prove I started writing my book before the other books were published or at least before they came to my knowledge.

    At first I was very panicked about this. In retrospect, I realize the books are nowhere near identical, but it still scares me a bit. Or should I just chalk it up to the common consciousness and move on with my writing?

  3. jennifer

    thanks for this post, Brian. i just finished writing a book in Sept. and i’ve been wondering what to do about copyrighting it. also, i’ve had writer-friends of mine tell me that they made a copy of all their writing and had it sent to themselves (thru certified mail so the date is on there). then when they got it in the mail, they didn’t open it, but set it aside for "proof" if they run into copyright issues in the future.

    what are your thoughts on this? i wanted to do this with my book, but wanted to make sure it would actually protect my copyright.

    1. nolagirl504

      Hi Jennifer. I know your post was written YEARS ago, but I’m interested in doing this as well. Is this an official/acceptable way? I didn’t see anyone’s reply to your question. Thanks!


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