Copyright

Writers who seek my advice about getting their first books published often have questions about copyright issues. Here are the most common ones:

  • Should I register the copyright for my manuscript before submitting it to an independent editor, literary agent, or publisher?
  • Should I include the copyright notice on the title page of my manuscript?
  • How long will the copyright on my book last?

Let’s take them one at a time.

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Should I register the copyright for my manuscript before submitting it to an independent editor, literary agent, or publisher?

My short answer is: No, you shouldn’t. Here’s why.

Under today’s copyright laws, your manuscript is protected by copyright the moment you create it. Anyone publishing it (or parts of it) as their own would be committing a crime. This copyright law protects your manuscript whether you register the copyright or not.

Registering your unpublished manuscript with the U.S. Copyright Office does accomplish one thing. It gives you standing in court if you decide to sue for copyright infringement. But what I said before bears repeating: Even if you do not register your copyright, anyone who plagiarizes or steals your work will be committing a crime.

Even if an unethical independent editor, literary agent, or publisher was inclined to steal your work, the threat of criminal prosecution is a strong incentive to put such thoughts out of his or her head. I’ve been in this business for more than thirty years, and I’ve never heard of a single case of someone stealing an unpublished manuscript and selling it as their own. Why would they do that? If it’s a great book and becomes a bestseller, they know they can’t hide their crime. And if it isn’t a great book, why bother? Besides breaking the law, they’ll be ensuring that they’ll never be able to work in this business again. Is a book – any book – worth giving up your career and reputation over?

When a book is published, then it makes sense to register the copyright in order to have legal standing in case of copyright infringement. After all, at that point the book will be available to millions of people who don’t know or care about copyright law, and if someone decides to plagiarize, you might want to sue. Publishers typically take care of registering the copyright.

While there are no real benefits to registering the copyright for your unpublished book, there are at least two reasons not to. For one thing, your book will become a public record. Self-publishing firms and unethical literary agents comb through the lists of newly registered copyrights looking for unpublished manuscripts and potential new customers. Since most writers who register their own copyrights are newer writers with sketchy knowledge of the publishing business, they’re easy targets for scams.

But the worst aspect to copyright concerns is this: If a literary agent or publisher senses that you’re overly concerned about copyright protection, it’s almost given that they won’t even want to read your manuscript. While stories and story ideas are rarely stolen, it’s not at all uncommon for two writers to have the same idea and turn it into books which may have similarities. Literary agents and publishers, some of whom receive hundreds of submissions per week, don’t want writers making unfounded accusations of plagiarism. But they know that those accusations are most likely to come from writers who are overly concerned about such things because those writers don’t want to accept the notion of coincidence.

I’ve had conversations about copyright with enough writers to know that some of them are dead set on registering their copyright before they let anyone else see their manuscript. If you’re one of those people, and if registering your copyright will make you feel better, then by all means go ahead and do it by visiting the U.S. Copyright Office.

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Should I include the copyright notice on the title page of my manuscript?

No. In the past (until 1989), the copyright symbol had to be included on a manuscript in order to have copyright protection. But that’s no longer the case. Including the copyright notice doesn’t add in any way to copyright protection. When a literary agent or publisher receives a manuscript displaying the copyright notice, all it does is tell them that the author is an amateur who doesn’t know, and hasn’t taken the time to learn, about copyright law. Everyone in this business knows how copyright protection works. Reminding them that if they steal your manuscript they’ll be breaking the law will only insult and annoy them.

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How long will copyright protection last?

In the U.S. it will last for your lifetime plus 70 years.

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I don’t want to give you the impression that copyright infringement doesn’t happen. But the real problem isn’t in the theft of unpublished manuscripts. It’s the widespread and growing problem of e-book piracy – stealing digital copies of published books and posting them on websites for anyone to download. But we’ll save that for another post.

For more information about U.S. copyright law, visit the U.S. Copyright Office at www.copyright.gov.

For more information about International copyright laws, you can read the text of the Berne Convention at www.law.cornell.edu/treaties/berne/overview.html.

Questions about this topic? Call me at 505-796-6895 or send me an email at william@wgreenleaf.com. I’m in my office most weekdays from 9 to 5.