Funny You Should Ask: Should I copyright my manuscript before submitting it to agents?

Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers reader questions about copyright for manuscripts and using real people and products in your work of fiction.
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Funny You Should Ask is a humorous and handy column by literary agent Barbara Poelle. In this edition, she answers reader questions about copyright for manuscripts and using real people and products in your work of fiction.

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Dear Leery,

If you file for a copyright number with the U.S. Copyright Office before your book is published,
then you’ve registered the wrong version of the book. Unless you plan on having zero revisions.
And even when I’m 100-percent certain that my client is a genius, they always have many, many more than zero revisions. The final version of your manuscript is what needs to be registered, and that will be handled between you and the publisher as outlined in your contract. So, in summation: Nope on the copyright.

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If you’re worried about folks stealing your ideas, your title, your character, I can only hope
you queried me. Because if you’re that good that folks want to crib off of you? Well, my Tory Burch boots aren’t gonna buy themselves—come on over. (It’s also very difficult to prove an idea has been stolen unless entire sections have been copied verbatim.)

As far as your libel concerns: Yeah, anyone can sue anyone at any time for anything they deem to be libelous. If there are legitimate concerns, I might caution you to ask yourself a question regarding the object and person of concern: Is the opinion or view of the object central to the plot? 

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A character can call his Toyota Corolla a piece of garbage if it’s the reason a robbery went south. But you might be tempting fate to have that character announce that all Toyota Corollas are pieces of garbage.

Does the character clearly represent a real-life person, and does their portrayal come from a personal desire to watch said person suffer upon publication?

Celebrities have a much higher threshold for any kind of libel claim—with fame, one seems to waive some protection in the public arena. But what you cannot do is put a thinly veiled version of your ex-wife in the book and call her a smut-peddling petri dish of a cannibal who kicks puppies for fun. Your ex-wife is not a public figure and therefore the standard for libel is much lower—and the chuckles you may get while writing her “character” will quickly turn to tears when her lawyer calls. Quality writers know that words have power, and they respect that. Using your novel for petty get-backsies or celebrity bashing is beneath all of us. Then again, if anyone wants to write a story where Chris Pine is smitten with a humble-yet-coy literary agent? It’s totally worth the risk.

See!? Everyone loves a callback!WD

ASK FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK! Submit your own questions on the writing life, publishing or anything in between to writers.digest@fwmedia.com with “Funny You Should Ask” in the subject line. Select questions (which may be edited for space or clarity) will be answered in future columns, and may appear on WritersDigest.com and in other WD publications.

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