Should I Copyright My Writing Before Submitting to Agents and Editors?

Should I copyright my writing before submitting to agents and editors? Could they steal my story or ideas? How can I protect myself? We look at copyright here.


Ask any serious creative freelancer (writing, photography, etc.) about rights, and they’re likely to tell you that rights are as important as money. That’s because whoever owns the rights also controls when a work can be used and distributed and how much money it will cost to use them.

(Why do submission response times take so long?)

Look at the wealth and success of creators like J.K. Rowling and George Lucas. Now imagine if they had accepted a one-time work-for-hire fee and not held on to all the subsidiary rights associated with their characters and stories. Rights are important.

So it’s not surprising to me that I’m often asked about copyright, especially in terms of whether writers should copyright their work before submitting it.


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Should I Copyright My Writing Before Submitting to Agents and Editors?

The simple answer to this question is that it’s impossible to submit your original work to agents or editors without it being protected by copyright. In the FAQs on Copyright.gov, it reads the following, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”

(Read all the Copyright.gov FAQs here.)

In that sense, each draft of your writing is protected once it’s created in real time. So if it’s your original work, and you’re submitting it, then it’s impossible to do one without the other. But then, the next natural question is whether a writer should register their copyright before submitting.

Should I Register My Copyright Before Submitting?

While original writing (published and unpublished) is immediately protected under copyright law, one reason for registering the copyright is that it creates a public record and makes it easier to defend your copyright in a court of law and receive damages and attorney’s fees if you win your case.

Since we’re dealing with law (and I’m not a lawyer), now is great time to let you know that I can’t provide legal advice for specific situations. Always consult a lawyer for advice on your specific situation.

That said, here are a few things writers can consider:

  • Copyright does not protect ideas or facts. Rather, it protects the actual execution of those ideas in manuscript form. In that sense, it’s very difficult to protect ideas, which is a common concern for writers new to submitting their work.
  • Registering copyright costs money. Fees currently range from $25-400 for various forms of copyright registration (click here to view the fees on Copyright.gov). So those fees could add up rather quick, especially if you’re not guaranteed publication or payment.
  • Copyright registration could bring peace of mind. For some writers, it might make sense to register copyright just for the peace of mind it brings to know that the work is registered on the public record.

While the decision to register copyright before submission is a personal choice, always remember that your writing is protected under copyright law from the moment of creation, whether on paper or screen.

2 thoughts on “Should I Copyright My Writing Before Submitting to Agents and Editors?

  1. AvatarSteven Hutson

    My perspective:

    First, an unregistered copyright is almost useless. It’s valid, but very difficult to defend. Your burden of proof will be huge, and you must prove that the infringer made money from your work. Your recovery will be limited to that precise amount.

    Second, why do you seek this protection? Before publication, your work will only be seen by someone who you choose. If an agent or publisher steals your work, then their loss of reputation will punish them far more than any lawsuit you could bring.

    In our modern era of computer technology, I don’t know anyone who prints out manuscripts for submission. Almost every agent and publisher accepts (or even requires) electronic submissions. Hence, your chances of misdirected mail are almost nil.

    And incidentally, a writer does not “copyright” anything. Copyright is a noun, not a verb.)
    .

  2. AvatarMelancomical

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU so much for this article. I am a fan fiction writer of a certain famous film franchise (since high school and I’m about to turn 50) and a friend was impressed with my ideas and strongly suggested I publish my stuff at fanfiction.net. I contacted this site and asked them about protecting my works from possible plagiarism and never heard back from them.
    I am still eager to publish there and I expressed my concerns to my friend who publishes there all the time. She says it’s kind of an “on your honor” system. However, literary artists like myself (yes, I call myself a “literary artist”– after all, I “paint” with words) know that artists “borrow” from each other ALL THE TIME, and, well– there is no honor among thieves (or so I’ve heard). I’m going to peruse this article and the websites provided further and decide whether or not I want to publish at fanfiction.net. I don’t want my precious words to “die with me,” but I don’t want them to get ripped off, either. Thanks again! JLF (aka Melancomical) PS- Think I will also share this article with my friend Stella. Take care– Namaste!

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