Copyright and Trademarks… What’s Legal? PART 1: How to Protect Your Ideas

DISCLAIMER: I am NOT an attorney, nor do I play one on the Internet. This article contains my experience and opinions only and is not intended to replace legal advice from an industry professional.

Copyright, trademarks, legal issues… it’s enough to make any author’s head spin. Most authors would rather bury their heads in their writing and ignore the legal world around them than do any research regarding copyrighted book covers or series title trademarks. And I don’t blame them! Even seasoned authors often ignore these issues… that is, until the dreaded Cease and Desist order or infringement notice shows up in their mailbox.

So what’s legal? What’s the difference? And how can you as an author both protect your work and keep from unintentionally (or intentionally) ripping off someone else’s ideas, thus opening your life up to the possibility of a lawsuit? And wouldn’t it just be easier to not worry about it at all or quit the book business altogether? These questions often start a ripple effect of anxiety and fear, which leaves many authors with tons of ideas and no motivation or energy to publish them. Which is a shame, as most awesome life-changing work disappears into said authors’ graves when they pass on.

So before we do anything else in this blog series, let’s tackle the fear thing…

Many authors will use one of these “fears” as an excuse to keep from letting their work out into the world:

“My idea is awesome. It’s never been done before. I just KNOW as soon as I publish it, it’s going to get ripped off!”

“I want you to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before I hire you to edit my book. My idea is so good I don’t want you to write and publish it before I do.”

“But my book cover looks so awesome, I’m afraid someone’s going to copy it. I don’t know how to protect my brand.”

Yadda yadda yadda…

I’ve coached hundreds of authors one-on-one and taught thousands more through my online courses and training programs. And I can tell you that 100% of the time, people who have the thoughts above tend to not ever publish anything. In fact, when I used to manage book projects for others, every author who said one of the above statements in their first coaching session with me never ever ever actually got around to publishing their book. Why? Because thoughts like those are paralyzing. The thought of someone stealing your idea and publishing it before you do is the perfect excuse to not share that idea with anybody. And I don’t know a single super-successful author who’s done their projects completely start to finish without sharing it with anybody along the way.

Here’s the truth…

Your idea may be awesome. You may think it’s the one-of-a-kind-totally-innovative-never-been-done-before BEST. IDEA. EVER. But the truth is, all ideas come from somewhere. All ideas are either a combination of things you’ve seen, experienced, heard, read, or something you were aware of in the past that has resurfaced as a “fresh” idea. This is why research is so important. Because many authors actually copy other people’s ideas without even realizing it. The subconscious memory can be a tricky beast… and often the ideas we come up with at 3:00AM or in the shower are actually birthed a long time ago and our subconscious mind has finally brought them to light.

Therefore, there’s nothing really new under the sun. Always do your research on your idea before taking action and spending your most precious commodity on it: time. Make sure it hasn’t been done before. Or if it has, make sure your way of doing it is completely different.

Now I’m going to let the proverbial kitten out of the bag…

Ideas are not copyrightable. WHAT?!

This means even though you may have your editor, book designer, and your plumber sign an NDA because you’re so gosh-darn excited to share your idea with them, but don’t want your plumber running home and writing that book before you do, they still can. And sometimes do. And unfortunately there’s nothing you can do about it.

Sure, it sucks. Sure, it’s against every ethical and moral law. And sure, it will give you a sinking pit in your stomach when you see your idea created by someone else. And it will make you mad. But there’s no legal thing you can do about it. And yeah, that sucks.

I know several people whose ideas have been blatantly ripped off. While they couldn’t legally do anything about it, it was morally wrong. And it caused angst and frustration. And equally unfortunately, the people who did the ripping-off profited from that idea.

So if you can’t copyright them, how do you protect your ideas?

First of all, in short, you can’t. Not really. There’s nothing to keep an editor from taking your idea and writing their own book about it. No, they can’t copy your exact words (more on this in What’s Legal? PART 2: How to Copyright Your Book), but they can create their own spin on your idea. The best thing you can do is be careful who you select to work on your book project. Choose freelancers over employees at a self-publishing services company. Ask to speak to the editor, designer, book layout artist, etc. directly. Work one-on-one with everyone whose eyeballs are on your manuscript. If you’re working with a book coach, make sure you select them based on industry reputation, what others are saying about them, etc.

Always do your research. Always do your homework. Make sure you’re not copying someone else and if you’re in the clear there, don’t blindly hire someone to work on your book based off their nice website. You wouldn’t trust your kids with a total stranger for a weekend while you’re out of the country, would you? Then don’t trust your book “baby” with a total stranger either.

Secondly, live by a higher standard. Don’t copy others. Use their ideas as inspiration to create your own, unique work. Pay your dues. Figure stuff out on your own. And if you put work into being innovative and your idea is taken by someone who lives by a lower moral code than you, vent, scream, yell, throw something (just don’t injure yourself, another human or your cat) and then move on. Create something new.

Here’s the thing… Not many people are innovators. Creative innovators like authors have the ability to see the same exact thing as someone else in a completely different way. Innovators are special, and innovative ideas are always knocked off by someone looking to make a quick buck. If you’re an innovator, keep innovating. The best way to “get back” at someone who stole your idea is to take the high road. Move on, create something else, and knock your readers’ socks off with your next idea. (Look at Disney as the perfect example of this… almost everything they create has knock-offs.) Creating something new is the best way to “get back” at someone who rips you off. And if you still don’t feel better after that, remember karma. Karma’s a b*tch, and she’ll get them back in time. 🙂

Ready to take your book publishing to the next level and learn a lot more about the legalities and business side of publishing from a proven industry expert? Check out my in-depth course Book Publishing Ninja today!

Leave a thought in the comments below, then click here to read Part 2: How to Copyright Your Book.

Leave a Comment

  • william h english
    February 5, 2017

    NICE WORK Kristen thanks for the info and all you have freely shared that made me a more knowledgeable writer.

  • Emilie S Spaulding
    February 5, 2017

    thanks for the tips, I look forward to more info, I have just published my book, Red Clay Girl, and need your great tips for my next one. Appreciated, Emilie Spaulding