Copyright is a curiously prevalent—and frankly, bizarre—preoccupation for writers preparing to submit their work to literary agents. Writers are really worried about copyright. Like, far more than they should be. Here are some common questions we get here at Aspiring Author: Should you copyright your writing (and pay for the privilege)? Do you hold the rights to your own work? For how long? Can someone else steal or plagiarize your work ahead of publication? What are the consequences?
We’re stepping in to answer as best we can with our no-nonsense, business-minded approach that we are known for (note: we are not lawyers—more on that below). But our TL;DR is: if you plan on pursuing a traditional route to publishing, please, please stop worrying about copyright. Nobody is plotting nefariously about stealing your work. The truth is: your work isn’t even that valuable…yet.
What are rights?
Rights are a way to stamp ownership on a creative product. Whoever owns the rights to the content gets to control how it is distributed. The good news is that if you write it, you own the rights. Your writing is yours: now, and in perpetuity. Rights become extremely important if you shoot to literary fame, or if you publish multiple novels, or if your work is so popular that it spawns fan fiction. As the original creator, you will benefit financially from owning the rights.
When do rights kick in?
As soon as you put pen to paper, or word to screen, you own the rights and are protected under copyright law. This law has been in place since 1989. In other words, you must create the product, or produce the content, for rights to apply. The written word constitutes content, and, as such, is protected by law.
Can you copyright an idea?
No, you cannot copyright an idea or a fact; you can only copyright your writing. Many writers are concerned about others stealing their ideas, which is, frankly, very silly. Think about it: say you and another writer had (or shared) the exact same idea. Say you both wrote a novel based on that idea. These two novels would be vastly different based on the execution of the idea. The simple fact is that existing ideas are regurgitated in new formats all the time. It’s almost impossible to create something totally new (everyone borrows) unless you are a postmodern genius. In order to execute an idea exactly the same way, you’d have to be copying over someone’s shoulder. Which begs the question: why?
Should you put the copyright symbol on your manuscript when submitting?
Amateur move. Absolutely not. Your work in its current format isn’t that precious. Again, we’re not saying your work has no value, just that it’s not valuable enough yet. There is so little to gain from aping a manuscript in the first place, and there is even less to gain from including the symbol.
Stealing and plagiarism
Does it exist? Yes, of course. Should you worry about it before submitting to literary agents and editors? No. Why? Because—put bluntly—your manuscript is not a book or a product yet. Further, theft of unpublished work is very rare. Once your agent sells it to a publishing house, and once it goes into production, then yes, you wouldn’t want that to be plagiarized. But it will have gone through so many rounds of revisions and edits anyway, that by the time it goes into production it will be so unique and virtually impossible to copy without someone smelling a rat. Luckily, once you get into professional book publishing territory, you will be working with a publishing team whose job it is to register the copyright, distribute according to your contract and negotiated rights, and protect your work.
What about literary agents?
A reputable literary agent has zero interest in stealing your work. It’s an agent’s job to represent a writer throughout their career. They are salespeople, not writers. If they wanted to write, they would write. Equally, there’s no point to them stealing your ideas. They are inundated with ideas. Trust me, they’re not interested in yours, unless it’s with a view to representing you.
Does it cost money to copyright your writing?
Fees for copyrighting work in the U.S. start small but can go up to thousands of dollars. In our opinion? Save your money.
Is there ever a good reason to copyright your writing?
If, after everything you’ve read here, you still need peace of mind, or are concerned about plagiarism, or simply want to have the date of copyright on public record, then you are free to go ahead and file your work with the Copyright Office. In this case, the best time to copyright your writing would be at its inception, to prove that you were the earliest creator of the work (if, for example, someone else claimed it was theirs; again, highly unlikely). However, once you get the book deal, your publisher will handle the copyright on your behalf. Your agent will support you through the process and will be there to answer any questions.
What about self-publishing?
That’s a whole different ballgame, and one we won’t go into detail about here, but things are very different when you self-publish, and, without the backing of a traditional publisher, you will likely want to copyright your writing since you won’t have the support of a professional team behind you. Visit the U.S. Copyright office registration portal to get things started. However, as anyone who regularly reads Aspiring Author knows, we strongly encourage you to pursue the traditional publishing route first.
Consider seeking legal advice
We are not lawyers at Aspiring Author. This article does not constitute legal advice in any way. We are writers and editors and business bosses who want to ensure you have all the information available about whether or not to copyright your writing, in plain English, without the legalese. We recommend you seek legal advice for a detailed explanation of legal terms and conditions regarding copyright. Equally, the advice given here is based on North American copyright. Different countries and territories have different laws; follow those that apply to your location.