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.


Thanks!

Answer:

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 (http://www.copyright.gov), 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 (www.pred-ed.com).

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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