Writers are the type of people who are often asking questions and considering possibilities. This can be a great thing, because writers will often think of things that no one else has considered. This can also be a bad thing, because writers (myself included) will worry over things that are not that important. One of the more common worry points for unknown writers is copyright.
No one wants to steal your work (when no one knows who you are)
When I attend writing events, big and small, I am often asked about when and how to register copyright. Writers are afraid that there are people out there poised in the shadows, ready to steal their manuscripts and make millions off them. However, that's not something that typically happens. After more than a decade of working in the publishing industry, I can tell you that I don't have a first person story of someone trying to steal another person's work that needed to be solved through court.
I'm not saying that a story (or two) doesn't exist, but I've come into contact with a lot of writers over the years. The only thefts I've heard of that can be verified are of super famous writers, like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. Then, there are a few "friend of a friend of a friend" stories that sound more like urban legends than actual factual stories.
As an editor, I will put a mental red flag on manuscripts (or worse, pitches) that include a copyright symbol or mention, because I feel like that writer either doesn't trust me or isn't used to working in the publishing/media business. I'm usually a little overstretched, so I admit that I'm looking for writers who write well AND who seem like they'll be easy to work with. It's a small thing, but it can be important when I have more than enough great pitches from which to choose.
So, when should a writer be worried about copyright?
The more popular writers become the more they need to worry about theft, because someone may try to profit off their popularity by selling discounted, pirated versions of their books. Of course, these thieves are not worried about whether work is protected by copyright; they'll pirate the books anyway. However, having work registered with the United States Copyright Office (if living in the United States) affords writers a little more legal muscle in fighting those legal battles.
Many writers don't have to worry about registering the copyright, because the publishers will handle it. The publication rights sold should be defined in the contract. For a good article on copyright, check out "Copyright Law 101," by Amy Cook. Another great resource is to go directly to the United States Copyright Office's website. It provides information on copyright law and how to go about registering your manuscript.
By the way, a few things that cannot be copyrighted include ideas, titles, names, short phrases, and facts. Patents or trademarks may be available, but copyright is intended more for completed manuscripts, including articles, poems, books, and more. So if you're worried about someone stealing your idea for a book, there's nothing that copyright can do for you. Write the book, and you can protect yourself.
The bottom line: Don't stress over copyright before publication. It's more important to know which rights to retain early on (between the writer and the publisher) than to worry about manuscript bandits looking to hijack a manuscript by an unknown writer.
Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer
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