So you wrote a book. Congratulations. You are immediately protected by US copyright—federal protection for your creative endeavor.
Your precious manuscript resides in what is called a fixed format, such as a computer file in the cloud or as a printout, even a handwritten manuscript on yellow legal pads. Your book is no longer an idea in your head because ideas, although delightful, cannot be copyrighted.
Copyright applies to other creations such as music, but I am a nonfiction book editor, so I know the world of books.
So far, so good.
Sometimes authors fear emailing me their full manuscript for initial review. They worry that someone will steal their work. I don’t plan to steal your work, so please don’t send me emails telling me about the few times this actually happened or that pirates have republished your unprotected ebook on free sites.
Ideas are a dime a half dozen, considering inflation, but until someone takes your precious idea and creates a story, writes a novel, or develops a product, ideas are out there.
Not Particularly Useful Ways to Declare Copyright
Before you share your magnum opus with the world or even your editor, if you feel more comfortable putting the copyright symbol © on every page of your manuscript, fine. It’s not necessary.
You are already protected by America’s copyright laws simply because you wrote your work in that fixable format.
Filing Form TX with the Library of Congress while you have a working draft of your book is not useful at all. The Library of Congress only wants your formal filing (with a check for $45 and two copies of your book) when the book is printed in paperback or hardcover or finalized as an ebook. In a final form. Done.
Do not mail yourself a copy of your printed manuscript. Some people mistakenly think if they mail themselves a copy of their book manuscript, in a sealed envelope, never opened, that the date on the postage meter affirms the date of their first copyright.
This is often called poor man’s copyright. You don’t need this type of date stamp, especially now with computer files, and you’ll be wasting paper and postage.
Absolutely Ridiculous Ways to File Copyright
I spoke with an author recently who said his golfing buddy was setting him up with an attorney who could handle copyright.
“What?” I asked. “Why?”
The author said, “He told me his buddy would charge about two thousand dollars to handle copyright filing.”
I replied, “I am going to save you a couple grand.”
So I explained that the lawyer was clearly misinformed or a huckster. You do not need an attorney to file your copyright.
You can read about copyright at the US Copyright Office, a division of the Library of Congress, and here is Form TX when you’re ready to fill it out for yourself. No legal fees required. Send me $2,000.
The US Copyright Office will mail you, eventually, a formal copy of that document you filed and duly note your ownership should someone rip you off. Just remember, violation of copyright is a federal case and could be expensive because cases are tried in federal courts where you’d have to file your claim. New guidelines are as yet unclear about how to file copyright infringement in small claims court.
Your best defense is to get your book published, out to the world, enjoy the glory and the profits, and not worry about copyright.
I am not a lawyer. I read legal thrillers, which does not make me an expert on anything. Please consult an attorney if you have legal questions about your book and copyright, but make sure you are talking with an intellectual property attorney. The lawyer who handled your divorce (the subject of the scorching memoir you wrote) is not the right person to deal with copyright questions.
Sandra Wendel is a nonfiction book editor, book award judge, and author of the NFAA gold-award-winning book Cover to Cover: What First-Time Authors Need to Know about Editing. She teaches classes on how to write a book at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha. She has never had a problem with copyright infringement, which may or may not say something about the quality of her writing. Some of her most insightful blogs about editing on Medium have been compiled into a fun read called Stuff Writers Write That Makes Editors Cringe.