Writing and copyright

Can I protect my ideas? What stops someone stealing my idea?

Well, not really. Agents and publishers aren’t looking to steal your ideas (only to sell them, and then get you a good advance in return). Agents, frankly, have too many other manuscripts to read themselves. What’s more, ideas have no value to anyone unless they’re expressed well.

Many first-time writers mightn’t believe that, but agents receive hundreds of manuscripts every month. There may be plenty of good ideas, but if execution is lacking, a bright idea alone just can’t wash.

It needs to be written well, it needs to be innovative.

Schools of magic had been written about before Hogwarts, for instance, as per Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch. Vampires had been written about before Anne Rice wrote Louis, Claudia and Lestat. These and other topics have been written about for years and, realistically, will be written about again.

What matters is how ideas are expressed, made different.

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So how do I protect my words, my own story?

You just don’t need to do anything.

As Writers & Artists phrased it:

What you are able to copyright is ‘the expression of an idea’. This means your actual written sentences, your characters, plot, argument and conclusion. All you need to do to safeguard these (and to gain ownership of the copyright of your work) is to get them down on paper.

Getting ideas on paper means you still need to publish your book to secure those rights. That means still sending your manuscript out to agents, to editors, etc.

If you’re still concerned – or if you’re a US or Canadian author, where the rules and practices are slightly different – then of course you can consider printing off your work and mailing it to yourself, recorded delivery, and leaving it unopened, deep and mysterious, in a secret drawer. That unopened envelope can act as proof in court that you wrote the manuscript by a certain date.

Or just to the Writers’ Guild of America site and register your work with them online.

If you are writing a film script, then you’ll need to register it with the WGA before sending it to agents. In the US, film studios and New York publishers are much more closely connected than they are elsewhere. Many North American authors still do nothing to protect their work – and that’s fine – but if you do want to take extra measures to protect your work, go ahead and do just that.

Do I need copyright permission to quote other people’s words?

Yes, you need to obtain copyright permission to quote anything written by a published author (or poet, or songwriter), unless that author has been dead for seventy years or more.

If you are quoting texts or letters, then you do need to obtain copyright permission. Where (i) that permission may be hard to obtain, and (ii) the relevant material is crucial to your work, then an agent or publisher may want to see that you have the necessary permissions before they take your work seriously. It makes no difference if you have altered names and other personal details. If you’re using someone else’s words, then you need to get permission.

Where you are quoting published work (or where any material you do quote is not central to your work), you can be more relaxed about obtaining permissions before sending work off to agents. When and if you get a book deal, there’ll be plenty of time to obtain the required permissions. You’ll also find copyright owners are more responsive, when they know that the author asking for permission has a book deal.

Good luck.

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