Protecting Your Work, a Quick Guide to Copyright

Everyone is afraid of having their work stolen.

The Internet is full of second hand advice on how to protect your writing from theft, however, most people don’t understand the simple process of securing your work. So here, in as few words as possible, is the low down on what you need to do.

First off let’s get rid of a suggestion that always comes up in writers circles: the “poor man’s copyright”. This technique involves sealing a copy of your draft in an envelope and snail mailing it to yourself. The postmark is supposed to be proof of when you created the material.

Besides not being submissable in court, this technique also misses the point of registering a copyright. You don’t register a copyright to claim ownership, you naturally own whatever you create, instead registering gives you the ability to sue for damages.

You read that right. If someone steals your work and you take them to court you can win with or without a copyright. But, you will not be entitled to any compensation unless the work was registered. Hopefully that put some fears to rest for writers out there.

So when do you register? The simple answer is not until it’s published. That’s another misconception writers encounter. True, you can pre-register work for an extra fee or even expedite registration for a very large fee, but typically the work cannot be registered until it has a publication date.

Now that all that’s cleared up, how do you actually register? Simple. Go to copyright.gov and click the box titled “register now” (it’s in the lower middle-left.) You will need to create a login and password.

Once inside, click on the “log in to eCo” button. You will then be greeted with a rather archaic looking system. What you want though is “file a new claim.”

The system will then guide you through the information you need to register your work. For a single author the process is very simple, however, it can get tricky if there were multiple contributors, hired illustrations, or other people involved that can claim ownership of part of the manuscript.

You will need to provide a digital file (PDF and Word are both accepted) at the end of the form along with a $35 processing fee. You can mail those both in, but this is the Internet, why slow things down!

If there are no issues, you should receive your copyright certificate in around seven weeks. Once you get it, store it somewhere safe and pray you never have to use it.

If something does arise, and this has happened to me a few times, a nice agent will contact you and go over what needs to change. In my case I tried to register a compendium of work, rather than each individual story. That’s a no no and will cause your claim to get rejected. If you have a pen name, as I do, you will also need to fill in on the form your real name as well as the pen name (you can claim just the pen name, but then in court you would have to prove that the pen name is you.)

Protecting your work is a lot easier than most writers imagine. With a little bit of money and some time you can give yourself peace of mind. Just be sure and finish your book first. 😉