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Do You Need to Copyright Your Book?

Many writers think that they should copyright their book as soon as the manuscript is finished. After all, you spent months or years working on it, so before showing it to anyone, it should be protected, right? Yet copyrighting your book isn’t the best way to go in all cases. Read on to find out what you need to do to protect your work, and whether you need to copyright your book.

When you finally have a completed draft of your book, it’s thrilling and exciting to know it will soon be enjoyed by readers, and your ideas will become part of the public conversation. 

Prior to sending it out into the world, though, there’s always a moment when you may feel … unsettled. You know you will no longer have control over what happens to it once it’s out of your hands. This is the time when you may think you need to copyright your book.

Yet, while a copyright seems like it would be a no-brainer, and in many cases that’s true, there are some situations in which copyrighting your book may actually prevent you from reaching your goals.

How do you know when you need to copyright your book?

Prior to registering for a copyright, you should consider your book’s end game.  

The two factors to consider are whether you are publishing your book and what your personal goals for the work are.

✅ Yes: Self-publishing 

If you are self-publishing on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ingramspark, Smashwords, or another online bookseller’s platform, copyright is not required because your book is already “naturally” copyrighted.

[From the moment an original work exists in a fixed and tangible form, an author is automatically granted copyright protection in the United States, Canada, and in many other countries.] 

However, if you are self-publishing, it’s nevertheless a smart idea to register for legal copyright on your own with the U.S. Copyright Office (or the copyright office of your home country).

Note: Your copyright won’t protect your book against theft- if someone wants to steal your work—in full or in part—there is no way to stop them beforehand. 

But a legal copyright may be a gentle deterrent as well as offer you stronger legal recourse in court if it comes to that. 

Some of the legal protections that come from having a registered copyright:

gold padlock against blue and white background
  1. Making Your Copyright Part of the Public Record: When you register your copyright, it becomes part of the public record, providing clear evidence of your ownership of the work. This can be helpful if you ever need to prove your ownership in legal disputes (and is easier and cleaner than combing through your computer’s hard drive or looking for old papers and notebooks).
  1. Statutory Damages and Attorney’s Fees: If someone infringes on your copyrighted work by using some or all of it, republishing it as theirs, or repurposing it in another work, and you registered your manuscript before the infringement occurred (or within a specific timeframe after publication), you may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in a legal action. This can make it easier to seek compensation if your copyright is violated.

Registering for copyright is only $45 USD or $50 CAD if you use online registration, so for this nominal amount alone, getting the legal copyright is highly worth it.

  1. International Protection: Registering your copyright can help establish your rights in other countries and provide additional protection if you need to take legal action abroad.
  1. Notification and Deterrence: Registering your copyright and displaying the copyright notice (©) on your work may serve to deter potential infringers, as they are more likely to recognize that your work is protected and may seek permission before using it. (Similar to displaying a sticker from your alarm company in the front window of your house).

    A legal copyright shows you are serious and know your rights, and a would-be plagiarist or content farm may think twice about touching your project once they know you’ve got this legal bodyguard in the form of a registered copyright.

  1. Licensing and Royalties: Registering your copyright can make it easier to license your work to publishers, media outlets, and other platforms, potentially leading to royalties and revenue generation.

     

letter slot in door

  1. Record Keeping: Registering your copyright provides an official record of the work at a specific point in time, which can be valuable for historical or proof-of-creation purposes.

    (Apparently the old “mail your manuscript to yourself” trick neither affects your work’s natural copyright nor counts as a registered legal copyright, and all it does is cost you postage).

     

In short: in the case of self-publishing your work, getting a copyright is a solid idea. 

While your book is considered naturally copyrighted and is protected by law, a registered copyright is a level-up of legal protection should someone infringe on your rights by plagiarizing or reproducing your work without permission.

Tip:
Don't wait until you're having your book formatted to register as it can take up to 6 months for your copyright application to go through.

❎ No: Traditional Publishing

If you are publishing or intend to publish with a traditional publisher (a “Big 5” publisher or an independent or university press), you do not need to register for a copyright as the publisher will do it for you and attach the notice of the copyright to the front matter of your published book.

❎ No: Submitting Your Work to Editors, Workshops, Traditional Publishers & Literary Agents

three hands holding coffee cups together

If you intend to:

  • submit your book to an editor or editing service for help with refining your manuscript and preparing it for publication
  • submit your short story, personal essay, poem, or chapbook to a literary or mainstream magazine for publication
  • share your work in a publicly-verifiable workshop, conference, or residency
  • send your chapters or the full manuscript to a reputable literary agent for representation

you do not need to copyright your work first out of concern that your work will be in the hands of strangers.

Any person working in legitimate literary circles will operate under the ethical “gentleperson’s agreement” and recognize and respect the inherent copyright bestowed on writers’ original works.

These people whose livelihoods and reputations are built on their standing in the literary community treat others’ unpublished works with respect and abide by the law in terms of their handling and care of manuscripts as part of their scope of practice.

stack of paper

Even if an editor adds whole sections to a work or an agent gives substantial notes that change the course of the book, they are very much aware that the author retains 100% of the rights to their project and will lay no claim to such works.

The only exception to this would be if you have a signed contractual agreement with an editor or ghostwriter that acknowledges you share ownership of a project.

As a result of this unspoken ethical industry-wide behavior, literary insiders expect that their professionalism will be acknowledged by the writers who collaborate or work with them who trust that the professionals will uphold this code of care without the author needing to legally copyright their work.

In short, it’s considered an amateur’s move to copyright and include that little encircled “c” beside the book’s title when submitting work for review or publishing consideration.

Some agents or publishers may even feel affronted by this lack of trust or unawareness of how the industry operates and regard the work in kind. 

❎ No: Community Sharing & Open Source Availability

Collaboration: If you want to use your work to create other collaborative works or encourage wider dissemination so other artists can adapt your work into derivative works or incorporate your work into a larger project, a copyright will slow things down or prevent that kind of artistic fusion. 

By allowing others to share your work freely, you can gain exposure and build a larger audience, potentially leading to other opportunities like speaking engagements or consulting.

Open Access: If you prioritize open access and the free flow of knowledge over your book being tied to your name as its creator, you might opt out of copyrighting your work. 

Writing a book, short work, or pedagogical materials for creative commons or other educational purposes with the express intent of allowing others to benefit from your ideas is one such reason you wouldn’t copyright your work. In this case, the legal tether of a copyright can hold your work back from becoming part of the broader “conversation.”

 

Author Paulo Coelho is one author known for encouraging piracy and free downloads of his works. He has been hailed as a “visionary” and a change-maker for purveying ideas. 

"The good old days, when each idea had an owner, are gone forever. First, because all anyone ever does is recycle the same four themes: a love story between two people, a love triangle, the struggle for power, and the story of a journey. Second, because all writers want what they write to be read, whether in a newspaper, blog, pamphlet, or on a wall," he said. "The more often we hear a song on the radio, the keener we are to buy the CD. It's the same with literature. The more people 'pirate' a book, the better. If they like the beginning, they'll buy the whole book the next day, because there's nothing more tiring than reading long screeds of text on a computer screen."

computer keyboard

Copyright Can't Stop Digital Access

Remember: our modern digital world allows us unbelievable access to information. The upshot is we can learn anything, enjoy informational privileges, and access the world.

The downside is people may abuse your rights by knowingly using your material as their own. Or in another extreme example, Jane Friedman, venerable publishing voice with multiple books to her name, recently learned that a content farm had stolen her name and attributed terribly written new works (likely created in AI) to her.

Such cases are rare and even rarer if you’re not a known author with multiple books to your name. 

Jeanne Bowerman also points out that someone may take your ideas or repurpose or repackage them, but they will never do it as well as you or like you. (A small comfort).

It can also happen that someone steals from you inadvertently, as in cases of plagiarism, which unfortunately can happen to anyone both as the plagiarist or as the plagiarizee (Note: that’s probably not a word). 

This terrific blog gives good tips about how to avoid being either.

So: Do you need to copyright your book?

Ultimately, whether you get a copyright or not, your decision will stem from knowing your priorities and publishing goals.

⭢ If you’re aiming for self-publishing in the classic model of being acknowledged for having authored the work, copyright is a valuable option that may ultimately offer you some legal recourse should anyone encroach on your materials.

⭢ If you intend to traditionally publish, collaborate with those in the literary spheres, or share your work in the spirit of contributing to a larger intellectual community, copyrighting your work may not be needed or advised.

⭢ Not sure yet what your plans are for your manuscript, but you’d like the peace of mind a copyright affords? Go for it! A little copyright can go a long way toward making you feel more comfortable. With life’s myriad variables, why not give that to yourself?

Life is always full of risks, but as a writer, you know that persevering is what matters. Your creative energy and ideas are vital.  People thrive on engaging with ideas and stories; in effect, those are what keep people afloat in good times and bad and what make our world more humane and more connected. All you can do is protect yourself as best as you can, then go forth and write.

Whether you are in the throes of working on your draft, ready for editing, or could use some publishing support by way of self-publishing book formatting, an author website, or someone to help you navigate the twists and turns of publishing, marketing, and more, we’re here for you. Reach out any time!

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