It’s easy to copyright your work. We explain exactly how to do it and what you can hope to achieve in this article.
What is copyright?
You’re reading this because you’ve created something – a book, a novel, a story, a play. Whatever.
Good. You now own the copyright in your work, which means that you have the absolute right to control its use and distribution. If someone tries to copy your work without your permission, you have the legal right to stop them. If you wish to license or sell your work to a third party on defined terms – such as a book deal with a publisher – then you have the right to do that too.
That all sounds simple, right? And in essence, it is. Unsurprisingly, though, there are some twists and turns, so it’s worth reading all the way to the end of this post before deciding what to do.
How to copyright a book?
The moment your words hit the paper your work is your own. It’s automatically copyrighted to you, the author. But, if you want to make it official, then you’ve got two options: (1) register your authorship and the production date of your book, as detailed below; (2) notify the US Copyright Office to prove that you are the author.
IS COPYRIGHT AUTOMATIC?
The first surprise, for some readers, is that copyright protection is automatic. In other words, you acquire copyright protection for your work simply by writing it down. As soon as the words have left your fingertips – as soon as they’re marks on a page or screen – they belong to you and no one can copy them.
The trouble is that there are two ways in which it is, in theory, possible to copy someone’s work.
Direct copying of text. If someone just takes all or part of your text and copies it out word for word, that’s a breach of your copyright. In the most egregious cases – like e-book pirates simply stealing your book and selling it online – the offence is utterly obvious and beyond dispute. But that’s not the only way that illicit copying can occur …
Copying of ideas, characters, sequences, concepts. But it’s also possible for a breach of copyright to take place even without direct copying of text. For example, suppose I decided to take Delia Owens’ smash hit Where the Crawdads Sing and rewrite it in my own words. I might decide to use my own words and a new set of character names, but to leave every single plot incident, emotional moment, and so on exactly as in the original. In that case, I would be breaching Owens’ copyright as surely as if I’d just written the whole thing out word for word. If Owens chose to sue me in a court of law, I’d most certainly lose. You can read more on that, here.
Now, all that seems pretty damn obvious, but there’s an ugly little legal loophole that remains open.
If I’d copied Crawdads out word for word, everyone would know that I’d copied and where I’d copied it from. There’s just no possibility that my copying was a remarkable coincidence.
But what if the themes / characters / plot twists seemed very similar, but had some differences? You might say my version of the book looked eerily familiar … but there are supposedly only seven plots in the world anyway. Themes of death, parenting, coming of age, self-expression and so on (all themes to be found in Crawdads) are common enough. Maybe two different authors just happened across the same basic set of ideas.
Now if you were Delia Owens and wanted to prove that my version of the Crawdads story was a deliberate knock-off of your own, you’d have to prove, in court, that I had read your book before composing my own version. If you could achieve that level of proof, you’d probably win the trial. Fail, and you’d probably lose.
That feels like a really tricky problem to solve … but it’s the problem that copyright registration was born to solve.
WHY REGISTER COPYRIGHT IN YOUR WORK?
Registering copyright can solve two problems for you. They are:
How can you easily and simply prove that you are the author of a given work? And how can you easily and simply prove the date on which your manuscript was complete?
How can you get around the issue of having to prove that a given plagiarist had accessed your story before their copying began?
Fortunately, there are solutions to both of these conundrums. There’s a cheap, easy version that does a bit less for you. And there’s an annoyingly bureaucratic and pointlessly expensive version that does more.
Here are the options:
How to register authorship and date of production
If all you want to do is prove that you are the author of a given work and that your work was completed by such-and-such a date, then you can just use an online ‘copyright vault’ service, such as Protectmywork.com. Using such a service will solve the “whose work, what date?” issue. It will not solve the second issue highlighted above. If someone copies your ideas and plot, but doesn’t snatch your exact wording, you would still have to prove that the plagiarist had read and used your work. That’s going to be tough.
For that reason, anyone really serious about copyright, will take the more complicated – and official – action below.
The advantage of this cheap and cheerful version of protection, however, is simply that it’s cheap and cheerful. So for $50 / £30, you can copyright-protect not just one document, but many. If you’re prolific and want the assurance of proper legal documentation of your authorship, this is a very low-cost way to achieve what you need.
But let’s say you want to do things properly, in that case you’ll want to register copyright with the US Copyright Office, part of the Library of Congress.
How to register your work with the US Copyright Office
If you register your work with the US Copyright Office, you will prove that you are the author of a given work. And the date of production will also be proved.
But better still, if you register your work with the Copyright Office, anyone copying your work will be automatically deemed to have read it. So Delia Owens no longer has to prove that I’ve read her Crawdads book. If she (or more likely her publisher) has registered her work, then any court will simply assume that I have read it. Then the legal argument will simply revolve around whether my version is or is not too close to her version to constitute copying.
That’s a win, right? The trouble is, the cost is a lot higher ($100 per document registered) and the process is annoyingly bureaucratic.
Are publishers or literary agents likely to steal your work?
No. Because their business would come to an abrupt, juddering, nasty halt as soon as they were caught, which would be pretty damn soon.
I’ve read around a little bit and can’t find any bonafide case of an agent trying to steal and profit from an unpublished author’s work. OK, maybe there’s a case somewhere that I’ve missed, but the literary agent community receives hundreds of thousands of manuscripts a year. Stealing just basically doesn’t happen.
You should worry about lightning strike or asteroid falls before you start to worry about those things.
Are professional book pirates likely to steal your work?
Or rather: no, if your book never really achieves any sales. But yes, definitely, if your book sells enough copies to seem worth thieving.
I’m not going to dignify any of those plagiarism websites with a link, but they exist. And they are there to steal books. So if your book is selling well on Amazon at $7.99, there’ll be a plagiarist selling the exact same text at $0.99 or less.
They don’t have to actually copy out your text to do that. They just have to break the DRM lock on your ebook (easily done; it takes two minutes), then they copy the file.
I don’t know any properly bestselling author (including me) whose work has not been pirated.
Will copyright protection defeat the pirates?
Of course, it won’t. They’re thieves. They steal stuff. Those websites are commercial enterprises which exist to profit from theft.
So what about you send those guys a cease and desist notice? What about you actually hire a hotshot, $600-an-hour lawyer to go after them?
Well, here’s a guess: they laugh at you. Wherever they are, you can be damn sure they’ll base their horrible website in a jurisdiction which really, really doesn’t care about your copyright issues.
Is there practically speaking any way to defeat plagiarism?
No – and I can prove it.
Here’s my argument:
I am willing to bet that your resources are less than those deployed by, say, Penguin Random House.
PRH’s authors are routinely plagiarised.
Yes, PRH chases the thieves around the internet and uses hotshot lawyers wherever it’s plausible those guys will make a difference, but …
PRH’s authors are still routinely plagiarised. That’s probably true of pretty much all their top-selling authors.
You can afford $100 to register your work with the Library of Congress. That’s true.
But you probably can’t afford a lot of hours that are charged at $600 an hour, and you certainly can’t afford them if the likelihood of that spending making a difference is close to nil
No government agency or law enforcement body anywhere in the world is going to care that a plagiarist is stealing your work.
So there is nothing you can do.
Honestly? My advice?
Look register your copyright if it’ll make you feel better. But you aren’t ever going to go to court to enforce your copyright and you’ll probably bankrupt yourself if you do. So write a great book. Sell it. Then write another.
If you do well – if you do really, really well – book piracy sites will steal a tiny bit from your sales. (Or maybe not: because maybe the people who take books from those sources would never put an honest dollar in your pocket anyway.) But there’s nothing you can do about it, so just write another book, and sell it, and be happy because you are doing a hard thing well. And you feel good about doing it.
Oh, and if you meet a book pirate? Well, as far as I’m concerned, you’re welcome to thump them.
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)