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It has happened to me twice in 30 years where ideas I wrote in unpublished stories actually ended up being successfully utilized in other stories that went on to be hits.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

Question: When should my novel be copy written?

Answer: Copyright is automatic. As soon as you have finished a draft, you have copyright on it.

Of course, you can register your copyright if you are worried about protecting it. Registration is necessary to launch a lawsuit if your copyright has been infringed. But this is usually not necessary in the publishing industry (partly because most novels don't make enough money for it to be worthwhile to pursue expensive lawsuits - which also makes them not worth stealing). Of course, if your book becomes such a bestseller that you have reason to fear piracy, it may be worthwhile registering.

If you sign a contract with a publisher, make sure you retain copyright and merely grant the publisher the exclusive right to publish your work for a period of time (after which the rights revert to you). Other rights, such as subsidiary, foreign, worldwide, electronic, etc. need to be negotiated and may be sold separately. Your agent will help you with this.

It is always a good idea to register screenplays, since lawsuits are more common in the film industry and the amount of money writers get for a screenplay is more substantial (the Writers Guild of America offers a registration service).

If you want to register copyright on a novel and you are in the U.S., you submit a copy to the U.S. Copyright Office along with a $35 fee. Check their website for the most recent procedures. Governments in other countries have similar registration services. Many countries have mutual agreements concerning copyright, so registering in one country automatically protects your rights in other countries where agreements exist.

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Protecting intellectual property

by drew hester
(cincinnati, ohio)

Question: I have done quite a bit of research about sending a finished novel to publishers, agents, etc - but I am concerned about protecting my intellectual property. Do you need to get your novel a copyright, register it with a database or simply mail the manuscript to yourself in a sealed envelope (the poor man's copyright)? I would hate to get a rejection letter over and over and then see my intellectual property on the shelves six months later by some other novelist. I know this sounds a bit egotistical, but I just think it's important to protect myself and my work.



Don't worry too much about copyright. You automatically have copyright as soon as your manuscript is finished. Instances of theft are extremely rare. This is because...

1. Most manuscripts are not worth stealing. The harsh reality is that most are unpublishable or lose money on publication, and it's difficult to tell which books will really become best sellers. So stealing a manuscript means taking a big risk for little guarantee of profit. (Thieves want to steal things they know they can quickly turn a profit on, and get away with it easily, and that's not books.)

2. If your book is really great, agents and publishers have an incentive to nurture a long-term relationship with you so they get your next book(s). They can't get that by stealing from you.

If you are really concerned, you can pay a fee to register your manuscript with the U.S. Copyright office (, but it's seldom worthwhile.

You should also approach agents and publishers who are reputable. You can find out which ones are not reputable at a site like Preditors and Editors (

Things are different in the film industry, where there's a lot more money involved and screenplays are re-written many times by multiple writers. For this reason, screenwriters may be advised to register their original manuscripts with the Writers Guild for a small fee.

Incidentally, the "poor man's copyright" does not work. People used to think that, if they mailed themselves a copy of a work, the postmark would establish the date the work was created. However, there's nothing stopping someone from mailing themselves an unsealed envelope. Theoretically, they could copy a manuscript at a later date, stick it into the envelope, seal the envelope, and then claim they wrote it years before the actual author. Because it is so easy to commit fraud in this way, the poor man's copyright does not constitute proof of authorship and has no legal standing.

The best way to establish copyright is usually to publish the book.

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