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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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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.

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While original writing (published and unpublished) is immediately protected under copyright law, one reason for registering the copyright is that it creates a public record and makes it easier to defend your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.

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