How Do I Copyright My Material?

by Todd M. Rogers
(Sacramento, CA)

Hello Glen!

It's been awhile since I have written in for a question, though I have participated in the comments section of several questions answered by you.

I just LOVE this site. Very resourceful.

My question today is this:

How do I copyright the universe of material that I create for my story?

It has happened to me twice in 30 years where ideas I wrote in unpublished stories actually ended up being successfully utilized in other stories that went on to be hits.

I want to be sure to do whatever I can in order to best protect my universe (the laws of the physics of that universe, the terms used for units of measurement like speed or distance, profanities/epithets, slang, character names/bios, historical elements, etc.).

Your advice, as always, is graciously appreciated.

Answer: Hi Todd,

As always, I must stress that I am not a lawyer. The following is just my understanding from what I have read.

You cannot copyright ideas, only your unique expression of those ideas in words. I'm not certain if that includes all the names you give to elements in your world, as I do see plenty of concepts appear in multiple science fiction works that may actually have originated with one author. (For instance, Asimov's three laws of robotics.)

Given that, you automatically own the copyright to your work once it is in fixed form (you've finished the final draft). This includes any original characters you create.

If you are worried about establishing yourself as the author or creator of a fictional work, the safest way to have your copyright enshrined is to publish the work. This would put a fixed date on your creation for anyone to see.

You can also pay to register your work with the US Copyright Office. In most cases this is not necessary, but if you think your work has a big commercial potential, it may be worthwhile. At least it will give you peace of mind.

The Writers Guild offers a similar registration service for screenplays, and is slightly less expensive.

Of course, you also have the option to not tell people too much about your story world until you have published stories about it.

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