What Authors Need to Know About Copyrighting A Book
Learn about copyright law, and the legal protections that come with registering your writing.
Stolen art might be a thrilling plot twist for a book plot, but as an author, it is not something you want to deal with in real life. After all, you put months or years of hard work into writing your book. You’ve paid for editors, designers, and marketers to bring your idea, your characters, your plot together and put it out into the world.
However, more and more book piracy has become a nasty part of publishing we all have to deal with. Social media is littered with stories of authors whose books have been unlawfully copied and posted on unauthorized websites or, worse, republished under another name. Picture yourself scrolling online, maybe looking for a new review of your freshly published book and you spot a similar title to yours. On closer inspection, it’s very much like your book. You open it to read a sample and the content is almost identical, if not word for word, your text.
You don’t want to think about it, but the sad truth is there are publishing scams and people out there actively working to rip off your work and try to sell it for their own. It’s a disheartening and frustrating situation to be in. But there is an option that affords you some rights to protect your work from plagiarism.
The option would be registering your book’s copyright, and it’s not as complicated as you might think. In fact, the registration process is just 11 simple steps, which are detailed below.
Note: Although the following article has been constructed through in-depth research, it is not written by a lawyer and therefore should not be considered legal advice.
Copyright. What is it… exactly
In the simplest of terms, it is a form of protection, a bit like buying insurance for your book against it being stolen. Only the copyright holder has the right to copy or reproduce original material, or create derivative works based on it (such as sequels or other books set in the same fictional universe).
In legal terms, copywriting is the documentation of original intellectual property, i.e., a book or manuscript with a legal entity. By registering intellectual property with a legal entity, only the owner has the exclusive rights to duplicate it until the copyright runs out.
The U. S. Copyright Office was created with this very purpose in mind–having a government body to manage a public record of documented original works providing the owners with a legal registry. In 2020 the office issued more than 443,000 registrations of copyrighted works.
Copyright protects “original creative works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” Creative works must exist in a “tangible form” to be eligible for protection. Electronic documents do count as “tangible” in the eyes of the law, so unpublished books sitting on your hard drive are still copyrighted material. U.S. copyright law does not protect facts, ideas or methods.
As the copyright holder, you have the exclusive right to
- Reproduce your work as you see fit. Print physical editions of your book, or create digital versions.
- Lend or sell those rights to another person or company, i.e., a publisher.
- Distribute copies of your work to the public. This may mean self-publishing and selling your book through the merchants of your choice, i.e., Amazon, Apple Books, Kobo, etc. Or providing your consent to another entity, i.e. a publisher, to do this on your behalf.
- Perform the work publicly. For example, creating a movie, podcast or tv show adaptation of your work.
More importantly, by registering your work with the U. S. Copyright Office, you gain a legal course of action against anyone else copying, printing, publishing, performing or filming the material without your consent. If you find your work someplace you have not given permission for it to be, then you have options.
A writer always holds the copyright to their original idea as soon as it is put in a tangible format, like a book. However, only by documenting that ownership through the process of copyrighting are you able to take legal action, should it be required.
How does copyright protection work?
With legal documentation of your work, you essentially have a safeguard with certain rights should anyone attempt to steal your work. It covers your book from being plagiarized or reprinted word-for-word without your permission.
Should anything happen, like your story showing up in print under another author’s name without your consent, with a copyright in place, you can challenge their ownership of the plagiarized book. With proof they are not the legal owner of your work, you can demand they remove the book from anywhere they are selling it, plus also sue for statutory damages.
The only exception to this is cases of fair use. Fair use means excerpts from your book can be used verbatim for:
- Parody or Satire
- Reporting the news
Once registered, a copyright lasts for the lifetime of the author plus seventy years after their death.
A word on the poor man’s copyright
You may have heard of the notion that you can put your book in a sealed envelop and mail it to yourself or in the modern-day version, email yourself a copy of your book and by datestamping or timestamping your work that counts as a form of copyrighting. It seems legit in concept, but all it does is demonstrate that you did indeed have a version of your book from that time. It is not a substitute for a legal registration, and you will not be able to claim any of the benefits of properly registering the copyright of your work.
Benefits of registering a copyright
Having an official public record of your book for all to see is a good idea. Here are some of the benefits:
Legitimacy. Filing your work with a legal entity gives you validity that the work is yours and immediate peace of mind should someone challenge you as the owner of the book.
More and more, lawful sites like Amazon are trying to crack down on unauthorized publications and there may come a day when you are asked for authentication that the work you have submitted for sale is indeed yours. With a copyright in hand, you are covered and providing the required evidence is quick and easy. Simply show them the registered copyright documentation, a legal document and the matter should be cleared up.
Proof. Should copyright infringement ever come up in a lawsuit, as the copyright owner, you have a public legal declaration that can be used in a court of law to serve as proof that the work is yours.
Before even starting a claim, the court will require your copyright registration as documented proof that you are indeed the owner of the work. Without a legal copyright from the U. S. Copyright Office, no court in the country is likely to proceed with processing your claim.
Legal protection. If you find your work has been reproduced without your consent, you may want to consider legal action and file a copyright claim against the thief who stole your work.
As with anything that involves a lawyer, their fees can mount up. Under U. S. law, you may be eligible to get compensation for any attorney’s fees. In addition, you could get up to $150,000 in damages, i.e., loss of sales.
When to register a copyright
By definition, publishing a book makes it available to the public and also, unfortunately, vulnerable to property theft. This is the time to consider registering your work.
If you are working with a publisher, it is a good idea to check to see if they are registering your book as part of your contract or if you are expected to take on the task yourself. Each publisher is different, but generally smaller publishers expect the author to submit to the U. S. Copyright Office at their own expense. Never assume though and if not stated in your contract, be sure to ask.
You can register your work before you publish it. Keep in mind that the concept is to register the best version of your book. If querying agents or publishers, you might want to wait. It is likely your work, if selected by a publisher, will go through some editing at least, thus changing the manuscript in small ways such as adjusting a plot line or even more major ways, including adding or deleting characters.
A good time to consider publishing is when your book’s final draft is finished and ready for publication and before you start the publishing process. However, you do not have to wait until you receive your copyright to publish. In fact, you probably shouldn’t, as there is no defined timeline for the U. S. Copyright Office to complete your application. Waiting could result in a loss of sales as your book is not in the market during that period and a loss of reputation if you were to miss a publishing date because you attempted to line up timing with registration.
If you are registering a collection of works, one application may be used if the works were first published as a collection. For example, an anthology of short stories or a reprinting of a series in an omnibus. However, if you have a series of books that were not all published together as a collection, each volume in the series must be registered as an individual copyright. As an example, all five books in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series have an individual copyright.
Should your work change significantly from the time of your original registration, for example, if you were to create a new edition with a new chapter or epilogue, you will need to go through the process again and create a new registration for the altered book. If your chances are small, such as spelling errors or inconsistencies, you may file for what is called a supplementary copyright. It does not replace your original copyright but sits alongside it.
You can pay a service to register your copyright for you, but beware. Just like those that want to steal your work, there are sites out there that claim to register your copyright but never do so. They will, however, happily take a fee.
How to register a copyright
The copyright application process is surprisingly easy. You don’t even need a lawyer. Or a plane ticket. It’s all online with the U. S. Copyright Office, a branch of the U. S. government. Access to the Registration Portal can be found at https://www.copyright.gov/ You may hear this site referred to as the electronic copyright office (ECO).
The U.S. Copyright Office website is full of helpful information including detailed FAQs, educational videos and expansive circulars (brochures) full of details down to the legal statutes.
What you’ll need before you start:
- 15-20 minutes to complete the form
- A computer. The government website does not work well on a smartphone, but it is doable
- A Credit Card, Debit Card, or ACH debit to pay the registration fee. As of writing this article, the filing fee for the standard application is $45 for a single author / claimant, one work.
- A digital copy of your book in one of the following formats:
- .doc (Microsoft Word Document)
- .docx (Microsoft Word Open XML Document)
- .htm, .html (HyperText Markup Language)
- .pdf (Portable Document Format)
- .rtf (Rich Text Document)
- .txt (Text File)
- .fdr (Final Draft)
Here is the step-by-step process for registering your book:
- Go to https://www.copyright.gov/
- From the top menu, select Registration
- From the dropdown, select Literary Works in the Types of Works section
- Select Register a Literary Work
- Create an account. You will need a USER ID (name) and password
- Select Register One Work by One Author under the Other Registration Options section
- Select Start Registration
- Enter your book’s details and select continue
- Select Add to Cart
- Select your payment option
- Once payment is confirmed, submit a copy of your book.
Note: You can fill out the forms by hand and send a print copy directly to the Copyright office via regular mail.
Once you have completed the registration process for copyrighting your book, as with most government institutions, processing times will vary depending on a number of factors including the way in which you submitted your work.
If you registered online, it could take between three to six months. If you choose the standard mail option, the average waiting time is six months, but it can take up to sixteen months.
5 Common Copyright Questions
Do I have to use my real name?
No. There is no legal requirement that you provide your real name on the application form. Many people write under a name not their own and there is even a box to check to let the U. S. Copyright Office know the name is in fact a pseudonymous (stage or pen name).
Are copyrights made public?
Yes. Registering a work with the U. S. Copyright Office makes your name, your book and all its details public record. The details of your registration are open to the public and searchable on the internet. On the U. S. Copyright Office website there is a database you can explore.
Is my U. S. Copyright international?
No. Each country is bound by their own copyright law, meaning there is no worldwide copyright protection. Countries such as Canada, The United Kingdom, The European Union, Australia and South Africa all have their own registration rules and regulations. Depending on the scope of your publication plan, you may want to consider determining the value of registering your book in the countries you plan to publish in.
Does my work have to be published?
No. Unpublished works can be registered. However, should you make significant changes, a new copyright may be a good idea.
Do I have to send in my work?
Yes. If the Library of Congress requires a hard copy deposit of your work, you will be required to send it to them. Your registered work will not be returned and stays with the Library of Congress.
Getting that copyright page right
There are only a few key details you need in the copyright notice of your book:
- The © copyright symbol
- Your name of Pen Name
- The year of publication
- The International Standard Book Number (ISBN)
- All rights reserved.
- The book edition
- A disclaimer that informs the reader that any advice or information taken from the book is at their own discretion.
This book is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, companies, organizations, places, events, locales, and incidents are either used in a fictitious manner or are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual companies or organizations, or actual events is purely coincidental.
So, should I register my copyright, or not?
Ultimately, the decision to copyright your book is up to you. It is a voluntary process.
Although it may sound complex, copyrighting your book might be a worthy addition to your book publishing process. The protection registering your work with a legal entity provides has the ability to easily offset the rather small investment and effort of applying.