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.
NOTE: This is PART 2… I highly recommend you click here to read PART 1: How to Protect Your Ideas before reading this article. You’ll thank me later. 🙂
In Part 1 of this article series I talked about your ideas and how you can protect them. And I concluded, “In short, you can’t.” (Click the link above to read exactly what that means.) However, once your idea is on paper, there are ways to protect your exact words. And beyond just your specific words, the way you spin sentences, how you describe your fantasy world or business concepts—all of that is copyrightable.
What exactly is copyright?
According to Webster, “copyright” is: the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work).
According to the United States copyright website, Copyright.gov, “copyright” is:
(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:
(1) literary works;
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.
(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.
This means once you’ve created and distributed something, your exact work, including words and images, is protected whether you formally register it with your local government’s copyright office or not. This law applies to everything from photos you take and publish on social media to blog posts and articles like this one. In other words, if I find this same exact article word-for-word (or a significant portion of it) somewhere else without my permission, I have legal grounds to shut that person’s site, book, etc. down. I also may have the ability to get financial compensation for the “stealing” of my work.
And FYI, this applies to both your words (writing), illustrations and your book cover design. (More on book covers and interior layout in Part 3.)
Do I need to register copyright?
Not really… BUT… (There’s a big “but” so read on.) Technically having your work “out there” in the public eye is usually proof enough that it’s yours. Usually blog posts are time and date stamped. You have files with meta data on your computer. You may have handwritten notes. So for the author who’s pinching pennies just trying to get by, $35 to register with the copyright office might be a stretch. Believe me, I understand needing to cut costs when you first start out!
However, once you develop a brand and a name for yourself, and especially if you plan to write an entire book series, and even more importantly, if you plan to make enough money in royalties to support your family, making your books an essential part of your livelihood, then I wouldn’t hesitate to officially file with your country’s Copyright Office for that coveted certificate. It’s $35. If you’re making any kind of money off book sales, it’s worth it for the added protection. Why? Because that little piece of paper entitles you to more easily go after anyone who copies your work without your permission, which means if it came down to a lawsuit, not only could you possibly get damages, but you may get your court costs and attorney fees covered as well. Especially if someone infringes on your book brand to the point it’s detrimental to your lifestyle and family’s well-being.
What about “poor man’s copyright?”
Authors looking to save money (including myself back in my early publishing years) have used what’s called “poor man’s copyright” to protect their work. It’s where you print off your manuscript, then mail it to yourself in a sealed envelope. This date- and time-stamps your work by a government agency (if you use a government postal service), and for all intents and purposes proves this work is yours and you were the originator of those words.
However, there are a couple of problems with this protection method. First, you can only use it once. As soon as that envelope is unsealed by an attorney or court, it’s done. Over. Can’t be used again. This means you may want to mail yourself multiple copies if you’re concerned that your words will be used without permission more than once. And depending on the size of your manuscript, it may be cheaper just to file official copyright than pay postage fees based on weight. Second, it doesn’t hold up in every court of law. Some judges will take a look at that envelope and say, “So what? You couldn’t afford the mere $35 to officially register your book, yet you’re paying an attorney to protect it? WTH?” OK maybe it won’t play out exactly like that, but you get the idea.
The fact is, “poor man’s copyright” is just that—for the “poor” man. If you expect to “make it” in the world of publishing, you’re going to need to invest in a few things. And after you hire a professional editor and book cover designer, the next thing you invest in should be filing copyright.
How do I register copyright for my book?
If you’re in the United States or want to register your book in the US (which you can do even if you reside outside the states), go to Copyright.gov/eco and follow these 7 simple steps:
- Click “Login to eCO.”
- Click “If you are a new user, click here to register.”
- Fill out the form and click “Next.”
- Follow their instructions to complete setup of your copyright office account.
- After your account is set up, go back to the above website and click “Login to eCO” again.
- Follow the steps to file a copyright for your book. Hint: books are filed as “Literary Work” so choose that.
- After you fill out all the forms, pay your copyright fee and print out the labels they give you, then mail the appropriate copies of your book to the copyright office (again, following their instructions).
Whether you formally register your book’s copyright or not, you should always include the copyright information on the “Copyright Page,” typically the backside of the title page of your book in print, or the next page after your title page in an e-book. It should look something like this: ©2016 Kristen Joy (replace the year with the current year and replace my name with yours).
Sidetone: While you can file copyright for your manuscript before you send it to an editor, it’s a wiser decision to file it after the book is designed and printed, because you can only do one or the other unless you significantly change the content during the editing process.
What’s covered in my copyright protection? What do I do if I find my work copied?
Copyright registration adds a level of protection to your exact words and any illustrations, graphics, etc. that you created yourself. Keep in mind that book covers are an entirely different animal, so more on that in Part 3: Who Owns My Book Cover? If you do happen upon the unfortunate event of your work being copied, either in its entirety or a sizable portion (more than a “Fair Use” quote… more on that in Part 4: Can I Include Quotes in My Book?), you can protect yourself.
First, you’ll want to contact the person who copied your work. Chances are they didn’t realize what they did was wrong, and they’ll be happy to right their wrong. If they didn’t copy the entire book, work with them to give them permission to quote your work. However, if it turns out they’re just a douchebag looking to profit on your hard work, hire an Intellectual Property Law attorney to send a Cease and Desist order to them. If that doesn’t work, ask your attorney for their advice. You may have grounds to follow up with a lawsuit. This will cost you a little in the short-term, but if it’s confusing your buyers and costing you in potential book sales, it will be worth it in the long run.
Keep in mind, a lawsuit should be your last resort. Try to work with the infringer first. Follow up with minor legal action. Then, and only then, throw everything you’ve got at them if they persist. If your livelihood depends largely on your book sales, you’ll want to protect your work as you would your family. Because in reality, that’s what your’e doing—protecting your family.
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 your thoughts in a comment below… Then click here to continue reading Copyright and Trademarks… What’s Legal? Part 3: Who Owns My Book Cover and Title?