Writing Advice #40: Copyright

I was asked:

Everyone keeps telling me i need to copyright my books before i even attempt to get them published, because there’s the potential that someone will steal them. Is copyrighting a good path to go down?

This is an issue that many, many unpublished writers don’t understand, especially when it comes to theft.

First of all, the quick and easy answer to your question is: Yes, copyrighting is the path go down, but no, don’t worry about it. You do NOT need to copyright your book before you attempt to get it published. I certainly didn’t. In fact, there’s a clause in my contract that states that it is my PUBLISHER’S responsibility not only to list the copyright in the book, but also to register the copyright on my behalf! Nice. I don’t have to fill out the paperwork or pay the copyright fee. That’s generally how it works — your publisher handles it for you.

But let’s talk about what copyright actually is. Copyright is exactly what it sounds like: It is the RIGHT to make COPIES (i.e. to publish) a work. When you sell a book to a publisher, you’re not really selling them the book. What you’re actually selling is the RIGHT for them to publish the book in a specific format, under specified conditions, with (usually) certain restrictions in place. You still own the book; they just own some of the rights that you have decided to grant them.

Here’s something most writers don’t know, though: You don’t need to register a work in order to own the copyright in it! You own the copyright to ANYTHING YOU PRODUCE AS SOON AS YOU PRODUCE IT!

So, for example, I own the copyright to this blog. I didn’t send it anywhere. I didn’t file any papers. But I own it.

And guess what? The law says that as soon as your book is in a “fixed form” (such as printed out or saved to your hard drive), it is AUTOMATICALLY copyrighted in your name!

Now, yes, you can send a copy of your work to the Library of Congress and have it registered there. That will give you some additional legal recourse. Right now, if someone starts publishing your book without permission and you haven’t registered your book, you can still sue them, but only for compensatory damages, which is to say, for the sum of money you lost because of their theft and no more. If your work is registered, then you can also sue for punitive damages, which is additional money you could get just because you’re the injured party. When you see a jury give someone a billion dollars, that’s punitive damages, most likely.

But, dude… Sorry, but no one’s going to steal your book. Not as long as you’re dealing with reputable parties. If you stick to publishers who actually publish books and agents who actually sell books… Why the hell would they steal your book? The damage to their reputation and their business is going to outweigh any benefit they get from screwing you over. It’s MUCH cheaper to pay you in the first place! If you show your book to a publisher and they think it sucks but they like the general idea and publish a similar book later, guess what? You’re out of luck anyway.

Because here’s what copyright is NOT: Copyright is not a way to protect “ideas.” You can’t protect ideas AT ALL. If you say, “I have a great idea for a book about a radioactive ocelot from the future,” then I can totally go, “Hmm…” and then go off and write a book about a radioactive ocelot from the future. As long as I don’t actually use any of your language or characters or anything specific to your book, I can do whatever the hell I want. It may make me a dick, but it’s not illegal.

You can only sue me if I actually take chunks of your book — your actual words — and use them in mine. A jury would look at your book and my book and decide if I ripped you off or not. (Obviously, if I just copy your entire book, then it’s gonna be a real quick trial…)

Copyright doesn’t protect your idea — it protects the EXPRESSION of your idea.

God knows I’m not the first person to write about a comic book geek. Or a kid molested by a teacher. And I won’t be the last. But I expressed those ideas in very specific ways, ways that were unique to me. I can’t copyright a comic book geek or a molested kid, but I can copyright my books ABOUT those ideas and characters.

This is what you need to do: Write a kick-ass book. Follow the steps I’ve discussed in previous blogs — join a writers’ group, go to conferences, meet people. When you hook up with a legitimate agent and a legitimate publisher, they will handle copyright for you and all will be well.

Oh, and I should probably say here that I’m not a lawyer and I’m just giving y’all the benefit of my experience. Go ask a lawyer if you don’t believe me. Look up “entertainment lawyer” in the phone book, give ’em a call, and ask ’em.

More questions? Ask ’em in the comments below and I’ll take a crack at ’em!

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