Copyright for Authors: Protecting Your Writing
Updated: Jan 28
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Do your own research if you’re concerned!
Having your book stolen is a nightmare scenario for many writers--especially independent authors who take the act of publishing (with all its potential fall-out) into their own hands. You can’t publish without allowing others to read and critique your book, but allowing them to read it also allows them to steal it.
How can you protect your book from being plagiarized? And if it’s already happened, if you’ve already spotted a rogue clone spreading around, is there any way to stop it?
Copyright law is the answer to your content ownership questions, and before you publish, it’s worth skimming and familiarizing yourself with the legal steps you can take to protect your work. Most of what you’ll want to find will be under Title 17 of the Copyright Act of 1976, but here are the answers to some of the more common questions.
What does copyright apply to?
Copyright applies to all forms of literature--not just novels. However, content with questionable ownership (such as fan fiction or ghostwritten stories written for another party), will be treated differently accordingly.
How does copyright protect you?
Copyright does not protect ideas. If you publish a book and then later find another book with the same idea and storyline, there is likely nothing you can do. Remember that many books are often written around the same idea. Your writing and your take on the idea are what will make your novel unique.
Copyright grants protection instead against plagiarism and near-plagiarism. If a casual reader couldn’t tell the difference between your book and your book’s illicit clone, you’re in luck!
Do you need to register a copyright to protect your book?
Ever since March 1989, copyright has been granted automatically upon creation. You type the words, and you already own the copyright. That means that no, you don’t need to file or register for one, and you have the right and ability to post a copyright notice in the front of your book as soon as you publish it.
The automation of copyright doesn’t mean you shouldn’t register. If you are concerned someone will steal your book and list it as her own, holding a registered copyright allows you to take court action, and the copyright will serve as your timestamp as prima facie evidence.
Copyright registry is also approachable easy to do online at the official registration site right here. It's moderately affordable (info here) and readily available to buy as needed. That makes it an easy add-on to your own self-made publishing packet.
Which is better: All Rights Reserved or Creative Commons?
Whenever you publish a new book, your distributor will ask you to choose one of those two copyright options. For fiction, you want to reserve all your rights to the book--so you’ll pick “All Rights Reserved” and write that on your copyright page.
Creative Commons allows people to copy your book for various reasons--educational, experimental, or other. That might work in the case of a textbook that a classroom teacher would want to copy from, but your novel should belong to you entirely.
Does the Internet endanger copyright?
The United States copyright laws have been in place since the 1970s, but publishing has changed so much that our process would hardly have been recognizable more than a few decades back.
How does the Internet play into copyright? We can copy and paste text with a quick stroke of the mouse or keyboard. Many websites exist devoted to fan fiction, and with the growing number of writing groups and editors working online, anyone can see your work and claim it.
For this reason, some authors choose to keep their books offline and only show them to trusted individuals in person. Others choose merely to be careful instead, only sharing work with vetted professionals who have a history of treating books professionally and with due respect.
Remember that your copyright is, to an extent, protected the moment you put the words on the page, so you can always include a copyright disclaimer in what you post to alert others to the fact that you wish your rights protected.
What should go into a standard copyright page?
Copyright pages vary from book to book and style to style. The only thing you need to include is the copyright symbol, the year of creation, and the author name (or a pen name, if you prefer). It should look something like this:
©2021 by Author Name.
You can easily proceed to add in notices like “All rights reserved” and any warnings against reproduction, or any notices about resemblances being unintentional, you wish.
Checking out what other writers put on their copyright page is a good idea, but for the most part, this page is flexible with whatever message you want it to give.
Is registering a copyright for your book worthwhile? How do you protect your novels from being stolen on or off-line? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below, or join my Facebook group for further discussion.