Wednesday, October 17, 2018

So, why you do NOT register copyright before publication

Yesterday Daniel Steffee asked

I was surprised to see "register copyright" at the top of the list of things not to do before getting an agent. Wouldn't copyrighting your own manuscript prevent against theft? I'm having trouble imagining the downside.


Brenda Lynn contributed
Guessing here but I expect the copyright issue is about trust. You presume that your agent will steal from you before you’ve even worked together, rather than research honorable agents. I presume there is one :)
Couldn’t resist.
It also marks you as an amateur because it means you haven’t yet figured out that every story has already been written...just not by you. How do you copyright voice?  

And Daniel then replied
Is it possible to reply to comments here? (I'm more used to Reddit than Blogspot!)

To continue the thread regarding copyright I wanted to respond to BrendaLynn: My interest in registering the copyright for a manuscript doesn't stem from fear of the agent but fear that one of my accounts gets hacked and some stranger steals the work.

Also, if I'd already copyrighted the manuscript, is that something I would need to mention early on to a potential agent?

First, yes, you can reply to comments. Generally the form is to put the person to whom you are responding on the first line in bold.

Now, to the question:

Copyright does not prevent theft, any more than car insurance prevents accidents. Copyright registration allows you to sue if someone does plagiarize your work.

But let's dig deeper:
The reason you do NOT register copyright for your book before your agent sells it to a publisher is that the publisher registers the copyright when the book is published.
It's a boilerplate clause in most publishing contracts with major houses.

Thus if you have ALREADY registered the copyright, it's not an initial registration, it's an amended registration

The copyright office charges a lot more money ($130)  for an amended registration than an initial registration ($35).

Copyright attaches at execution. You only need a registration number if you get a film deal, or if you want to sue someone.

While I'm sure some enterprising hacker might very well want to steal your brilliant unpublished work, it's far more likely they're going to lift something that's already published.

In other words, trying to protect yourself from something with a minimal chance of happening will create problems for something we hope has a far greater chance of happening (your book is acquired by a publisher.)

If by some chance you've already registered copyright, please remember to tell your agent BEFORE the contracts with the publisher are drawn up.

It's not a deal breaker,  but as with most things, it's better to be upfront about problems instead of sweeping up afterward.

Any questions?


Amy Johnson said...


That photo raises LOTS of questions.

KMK said...

...what, and quit show business?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Considering how much revision goes into a work prior to publication, it seems outright silly to register a copyright before anyhow. What goes to the printer at the publisher is not the gem sitting on your computer right now. And as many said here on blog yesterday, you cannot copyright an idea. Every story has already been written. It's all in how you tell it.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ahhhh the show shovel:
a tool used to clear a path though winter's folly,
a tool used by many as a means of removing detritus exponentially,
and the new symbol of America's political scene.

PAH said...

All this stealing of manuscripts talk has put in the mood to reread The Bear Went Over the Mountain...

If you haven't read it, check it out. It's a fun little romp about publishing (a bear finds a finished manuscript and gets published and -- as long as he's selling loads of books -- no one seems to notice nor care that he is a bear).

Janet Reid said...

PAAH I loved that book!!!

Brenda said...

As always my superpower holds true. Analysis Woman strikes again!
Thanks for clearing this up, Janet.

Julie Weathers said...

I'm sure many new writers think this is wise. I'm also sure with a little research they'd find all kinds of admonitions not to do this and why.

It's a rough and rocky road on the way to publication. Why plant a few more landmines along the way?

I love the guy in the dress cleaning up after the parade. I bet he wishes he was cleaning up after the goose parade, though. Regardless, someone has to do it. Might as well have fun. I used to date a gravedigger. Part of the contract was a case of beer at the start of the digging. I never heard any complaints about askew graves, but who knows. They may have had to screw them in the ground.

Bottom line, don't make life difficult for yourself. There are plenty of others who will do that for you.

Back to slashing and hacking.

Unknown said...

Thank you much for the explanation! :)

Nina said...

I've heard it's a good idea to copyright short stories. Is that true?

I'm a little confused about the automatic copyright. So, work is protected by copyright the instant it emerges from the author's keyboard, but if someone plagiarizes that work, the author has no legal recourse against the vile thief unless the work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office?

Jerry said...

The reason you do NOT register copyright for your book before your agent sells it to a publisher is that the publisher registers the copyright when the book is published.

This just leads to another question, though. Why is it necessary that the publisher register the copyright? What’s the benefit in it for the writer and for the publisher?

Joseph S. said...

My try.

First off, there’s a difference between “copyright” and “copyright registration.”

You own a copyright on anything original you write (with exceptions like you write something for your employer in which case it is a work for hire and employer owns the copyright). The copyright is automatic. Fifty or sixty years ago, to copyright something you had to indicate something on the paper, like “© Wilbur Abercrombie 2018” or “Copyright Wilbur Abercrombie” or “All rights reserved.” Those indicators are no longer needed, though some people still affix them either because (a) old habits die hard, or (b) it reinforces the copyright to readers and possible copiers.

Now, only tangible products (and derivatives of it (like the use of the characters)) are copyrighted. Not the idea or concept. For example, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” (TBWOTM) is copyrighted, but if before the book was written someone said to the author, I have a great idea for a book, “This bear, you see, writes a book and it becomes a best a seller and the bear becomes a mega-star author,” the idea guy has NO copyright. Only the actual writer has it. Likewise, if someone takes the idea already in print and modifies it enough, there is no copyright infringement. A person reads TBWOTM, for example, and writes “The Horse That Sang at Carnegie Hall” would not be liable for a copyright infringement.

Finally Copyright Registration: you (or your publisher) can register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. This serves three main purposes. First, it serves as proof you and not someone else had the copyright. Second, you bring a copyright infringement claim in court to enforce your copyright. Third, if you win in court you can collect attorney fees in addition to monetary damages from the offending party.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Another reason I love the Reef. So many smart creatures swimming about.

Joseph S. said...


My guess why publishers register the copyright is that they have a system for doing it and by doing it, they know it gets done. Leaving it to individual authors is asking for a screw up somewhere.

Anecdotally, when I was a young practicing lawyer, my "mentor" would send documents to clients for their signature and have the documents returned to him for "legal processing." My initial cynical reaction was that he was either trying to make the client think law was more complicated than it is or that it was an easy billing opportunity. Then I followed suit and found out the legal processing was making sure the client signed or initialed everywhere they were supposed to sign or initial. (You can paperclip or put post-its all you want, and people will fail to sign everywhere they are supposed to sign). It saved a lot of headaches.) (Plus we actually filed or delivered the documents to the right place!)