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Mail Call: Copyright Law For Your Nonfiction Book, Novel, Story, Or Poems

Do I need to copyright my novel, nonfiction book, short story, essay, or poems by registering them with the Copyright Office (Library of Congress) before submitting to literary agents or literary journals and magazines for publication?

mail, writer's reliefWhew! That was a mouthful—a question that’s as unruly as its answer. Copyright law can be about as simple as doing a jigsaw puzzle with your toes.

Whether you’re writing books or novels, poems or short stories, you’re bound to tango with copyright conundrums at some point in your career.

While we’re not lawyers, we can tell you about the general practices within the publishing industry (specifically, for creative writers who are submitting books and novels to literary agents, or those submitting poems, short stories, and essays to editors at literary journals and magazines).

If you need more details, seek a lawyer who knows intellectual property law, or check out one of the many books out there about copyright.

Should I put the copyright symbol on my novel or other book manuscript?

In general, the answer is no. Here’s why: United States law holds that a work belongs to the book author the moment it’s set down in a fixed medium (i.e. paper, or your word-processing program). Makes sense, right? You wrote it; it’s yours.

copyright registration for writersAgents and editors know that this is the law. And as long as you’re querying and submitting to reputable industry professionals, you don’t have to worry that they’ll steal your work and try to pass it off as their own.

In a certain sense, adding the copyright symbol could make a writer seem mistrustful and also ill-informed about the law. The symbol itself is just an expression of what industry professionals already know—that your book or story or poem belongs to you. So while adding it isn’t a deal breaker, it can give the wrong impression.

One more point before we move on: Here’s what you should know about copyright and mailing your writing to yourself.

Do I need to register my book with the US Copyright Office before submitting to literary agents?

Again, we’re offering a generalization. And again, it’s “no.” If you do get an agent for your memoir or novel (or any book!), the work is probably going to change a lot before it actually hits the shelves. That’s why it’s usually the publisher’s responsibility to copyright a work once it’s in its final form.

If you’re self-publishing or publishing with a small press, be sure that both you and your publisher are clear about who is responsible for the copyright registration.

A final note: One of the particular benefits to having registered with the Library of Congress is that if you are ever sued because of your book and you win, you will be entitled to recoup court fees. Also, copyright registration offers a formally copyrighted date, kinda of like those “packaged on” stamps at the grocery store. Both can be equally important if you’re the kind of person who despises both plagiarism and food poisoning.

What about copyright and literary journals? Will a literary journal copyright my poem, story, or essay on my behalf?

In general, literary journals that do register for copyright protection protect the journal or magazine as a whole, not your specific piece in it. This way, the collection is protected (if someone were to, say, copy the whole thing and sell it under a new title out of the back of a car at stoplights).

If you’ve been offered a contract for publication and you’re concerned about copyright, ask the editor who acquired the piece about the magazine’s individual policies.

Will copyrighting my book or story protect my ideas?

Whether you’re writing a novel or a poem, the law says that you can’t copyright ideas (or titles, for that matter).  Check out this Writer’s Relief copyright article about protecting your characters, stories, and themes.

More questions about copyright? Here is a book that explores copyright law.

Question for Writer’s Relief? Contact info@wrelief.com. Or leave a comment below!

22 Responses to Mail Call: Copyright Law For Your Nonfiction Book, Novel, Story, Or Poems

  1. Hi Cam,

    We would recommend contacting a lawyer who specializes in publishing and copyright law regarding your question.

  2. I am sending a copy of my work in hard back form to The US Copyright Office already. If I then make a paperback copy of the same book, do I need to register the paperback too. Or can I just copy the copyright from the hardbacks into the paperbacks to protect them?

  3. Hi thanks for the this knowledgeable article i want to ask is there any boundation in copyright rules across the borders in copyrighting my story or it is one time and permanent protection type? or i have to copyright in each country of publishing separately?

  4. Phew! I was nervous for a second because I’ve been sending out my novel to agents without any copyright symbol on it I feel much better now. This is one of the most informational blog posts you’ve had in a while. Thanks gals and guys!

  5. I had a dream about a year ago…when I woke up all I could say was wtf! I dreamt of the most original comedy crime /love story with an all star cast.Luckily it was my day off.I had to write this down before it evaporated.Struggling to find paper and a pen in the wee light hours..had me cursing profusely with each toe that connected simultaneously to the bed post. frantically writing notes scruffy paragraphs and sketches as fast as images flashed through my mind.I would make sense of it later.I am nearly complete with my book.wow it really is a dream coming true.

  6. Lovely piece. Very helpful, especially the part that says that the work will still be reviewed by editors; so the need to exclude copyright.

  7. Dear Reader
    I worked in print and publishing and have been very surprised that pcs do not carry this symbol on the keyboard when anyone is writing a book, novel etcso they can add it automatically if they wish.
    I would say always keep 2 drafts of your story just incase someone trys to copy and also state its copyrighted because only a fool would try and copy if it states “copyrighted and all rights reserved”. It is vital that you keep those drafts, you never know when you will need them.

  8. Dear Timothy, thanks for the great question! While using the copyright symbol may not protect your work in a legal sense (for real legal protection, you would need to actually register your work with the Copyright Office), it certainly could serve as a reminder that you’re passing your writing out in good faith and expect the other members of the group to respect that by not using your words or ideas. Whether you continue to do that is entirely up to you and what makes you feel comfortable, but understand that it’s just a symbol and may not hold up in court.

  9. I meet with other writers, regularly, and we all read from our unpublished creations. For convenience, we pass out copies of our readings for others to mark up or annotate. I, alone of the others, include a copyright symbol and date of reading in the footer of each page I pass out (these are usually returned). I feel it’s a reminder to the others that the content is my property. Do you suggest I not do this?

  10. My self-publisher encourages author promotion. When I asked about reading parts of the book for a possible video they said they owned the format, I owned the content. For me that’s ideal.

  11. Phew! I was nervous for a second because I’ve been sending out my novel to agents without any copyright symbol on it I feel much better now. This is one of the most informational blog posts you’ve had in a while. Thanks gals and guys!

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