Ask Daphne! About copyright protection

January 29th, 2008 • Kate

I’ve been trying to come up with witty names for the people who write in with questions, but sometimes it’s harder than others. In those cases, starting now, I shall refer to the inquirer as “George.” If you’d like to avoid being a George in the future, feel free to give yourself your own nickname.
So, George asks:

I have two books that my wife wrote before she passed away. She wanted me to get these published so I’m going to give it a shot. Should I have the manuscripts copyrighted before I send them to publishers?

I’ve heard this question before from writers, and the answer is no. There’s no need. Most publishers and/or agents that you’d send your material to are already overwhelmed with manuscripts — they’re not going to reach into the slush pile to pull out an unknown’s manuscript in order to steal it. If you’re not convinced and want to protect yourself, put a copy of the manuscript in an envelope, seal it, mail it to yourself, and don’t open it. This is called a “Poor Man’s Copyright.” Registering for a full copyright protection is a waste of your time and, to be honest, your money. If the work is good and strong and catches the right editor’s eye at the right time, and they want to publish it, they’ll file for copyright in your name as part of the publication process.
And remember, as Justine Larbalestier recently blogged, you can’t copyright a story idea.

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2 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About copyright protection”

  1. DwightWannabe Says:

    [Pounding my head against the desk]
    Respectfully, Ms. Unfeasible, the old mailing trick has no legal weight.
    And it's unnecessary.
    PEOPLE!
    Your work is copyrighted the moment the ink hits the page.
    Your work is copyrighted the moment the paint smooshes into the canvas.
    Your work is copyrighted the moment the magnetic head changes the polarity of the bit.

    The darned copyright symbol doesn't even have any legal merit. It's just a meme, albeit one that isn't going away anytime soon.
    The words "All Rights Reserved" don't have any legal merit except in two Central American countries with a GNP so low that no one besides the dictator in charge could afford to buy your book anyway.
    The Berne convention of 1988 dramatically simplified the concept of copyright around the entire civilized world.
    Your wife’s words were copyrighted the moment the ink hit the page. You don't need Big Brother's blessing. You don't need parlor tricks.
    People are SO worried that somebody is going to get over on them and steal their creative baby. Dude, SERIOUSLY, publishing a novel is such a moonshot that an agent stealing your ms and publishing it as their own is probably THE BEST thing that could happen to you.
    Assuming you showed your late wife's work to more than two people before you started mailing it out (And God knows you should workshop it through at least ten) you're likely to end up with a lot more $ than a measly five grand you'd probably never earn-out on a first book.
    Relax.
    And good luck, brother.

  2. Kate Says:

    Dwight, thanks for your comments! Although the mailing trick doesn't have much weight, it is something that a cautious (if perhaps inexperienced) writer can do rather than paying for full copyright protection.
    You're totally right, though. An author's best protection are the drafts of their own work.