How To Copyright A Book: A Comprehensive Guide
How do you copyright a book? Follow the steps in this guide to be prepared, just in case this nightmarish scenario occurs: a year down the road, you pick up another novel and notice the dialogue sounds familiar. And upon further inspection, you realize that everything in this book is a dead ringer for your work — down to your character Mick, who now goes by Dick.
Copyright is something authors are often curious about, though it’s so complex that few are eager to dip a toe into it. And it needn't be an author’s first worry. However, it’s important to understand what steps you can take to protect your intellectual property.
Our obligatory disclaimer is that no-one at Reedsy is an attorney — this is by no means professional advice. But we wanted to make copyright easier for authors to unpack, so we conducted the research, talked with practicing attorneys, and dived deep into the waters of copyright law for you.
If you prefer images over words, we've prepared two visual approaches to copyright for you. Jump straight to our explainer video or to a fab flowchart infographic that spells out the process of copyright registration for you.
What is copyright?
Plagiarism versus copyright infringement?
What's registered copyright?
INFOGRAPHIC: GUIDE TO COPYRIGHT REGISTRATION
How to copyright a book
What about the copyright for your book cover?
Differences between copyright in the U.S. and the rest of the world
What is copyright?
Copyright is just that: the right to copy. When books are published, it’s copyright that prevents others from copying your work and selling it (for profit or otherwise) without your consent.
Protection under copyright is the government’s way of saying, “Hey, this book is your original creative work! What’s more, we can ensure that this book will remain your original creative work and intellectual property — even after you’ve published it in the public sphere.”
Copyright deals with matters of authorship, such as novels, poetry, songs, computer software, and architecture. It's not to be confused with “patent protection,” which deals with discoveries and inventions; nor is it the same as “trademark protection,” which relates to the names and symbols of goods and services.
What does copyright protect?
Copyright protects your expression of ideas or facts. For authors, this extends to specifics of your characters, worldbuilding, plots, and dialogue.
Copyright does not protect ideas or facts themselves. If you’re writing a book, you’ll know it’s a trial to avoid certain tropes — almost all stories are derivative in some shape or form. Below are examples of “idea recycling” that are NOT examples of copyright infringement:
- Neil Gaiman once wrote a book about a young bespectacled boy who discovers magic, obtaining a pet owl in the meantime. He wrote it seven years before J.K. Rowling introduced kids everywhere to Harry Potter.
- Pretty much every popular fantasy novel borrows something from Lord of the Rings; Terry Brook’s Sword of Shannara is the most obvious example.
- 1984 by George Orwell lifted its plot and conclusion from We, a book written by obscure Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin.
In the world of comic books, there’s many a young boy who goes through some traumatic event, coming out on the other side with superpowers. That’s an idea, so it won’t come under copyright protection.
But what if DC Comics creates an uncannily fast-talking, silk-slinging teenager who swings around a city yelling, “I’m your Friendly Neighborhood Silkman” — all the while using a great deal of Spiderman’s story? Then Marvel will probably get mad, and there will almost certainly be trouble in Metropolis when they come after DC.
So what matters is the way in which you express and put your ideas on paper.
What is the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism?
Quite often people will mistake plagiarism for copyright infringement. Plagiarism occurs whenever someone takes another person's work without credit; copyright infringement is broader and encompasses more rights, which we'll cover in the next section. Though the two certainly overlap frequently, not all cases of copyright infringement will involve plagiarism and vice versa.
John Mason is the attorney who sold the book-to-film rights for Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. Listen to John further explain the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement.
How does copyright protection work?
There are several exclusive rights that you, the copyright owner, possess. These include:
- The right to reproduce or make copies of your work
- The right to distribute copies of your work
- The right to create a derivative work*
- The right to display or perform your work publicly
Copyright protection means that these rights remain yours and no-one else’s unless you choose otherwise (by selling them to a publisher, for instance).
So if someone features your short story in an online anthology, crediting you but without your permission, that’s copyright infringement. If someone distributes pirated copies of your book online, they’re also violating your copyright.
One more important point: in both the U.S. and the U.K., copyright protection on an original work exists the moment you create that work (and extends for 70 years after your death). You could be writing the next Great American Novel, or you could’ve just written one sentence. Either way, you own the copyright to your work the instant you write it.
So if an author’s work is protected as soon as they commit words to paper, why do people talk about registering their copyright?
* Of course, fanfic brings up buckets of questions and exceptions. We’ll explore the topic in a subsequent blog post, so stay tuned!
What is registered copyright?
Okay, now we’re getting into the details!
In a nutshell, registered copyright means you create a public record of your authorship so the whole world can see that you are the creator of your intellectual property. In the United States, these records are maintained by the U.S. Copyright Office, a government body. Any author can register their copyright with them for a small fee.
Why would authors want to register their copyright?
In a word: insurance.
Let’s say you didn’t register your copyright, and now you believe that somebody is infringing on your copyright. Even if you wanted to sue for meaningful compensation, you can't. You must register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before you can bring a suit to enforce it.
You could sue (without prior registration) for an injunction, which would order the infringer to stop using your copyrighted work. But if you didn't register your copyright, it would be very ambitious to do more. Only with registration in place can you assert your rights when you believe that someone’s committed copyright infringement.
In short: you should register the copyright for your work if you plan on bringing a suit for copyright infringement — if ever a breach of rights occurs.
When should you file your copyright registration?
“Timely registration” means registering your work within three months of the work’s publication date, or before any copyright infringement begins.
This secures you some crucial benefits, including the ability to recover attorney’s fees and statutory damages up to $150,000. Keep in mind that “publication” in this case means the day you first sell or distribute a copy of your book.
It isn’t necessary to register the copyright for your book before showing it to editors or agents. The reasons are twofold: firstly, your book will undergo major changes and revisions during editing. Secondly, unless you’re dealing with scam artists, there’s no incentive for an agent to steal your work. They’ve already found a pretty good way to get money from you: it’s called commission. Publishing professionals are unlikely to jeopardize their reputations on the remote chance that stealing your book will turn a profit.
Poor man’s copyright
In the past, you might’ve caught wind of something called a poor man’s copyright. Instead of paying the U.S. Copyright Office, you mail yourself a copy of your manuscript in a sealed envelope. (And some people will attempt to do this through e-mail, too.)
Ta-da! Now you’ve got proof of your work, along with a date stamp!
There’s just one catch: it won’t work.
Feel free to check out The Logo Factory’s complete debunk or Slate.com’s take on it. The consensus everywhere is that poor man’s copyright is a dangerous myth that won’t do anything for you in a courtroom, other than providing you with a nice big envelope you can use to fan yourself while the judge makes fun of your attorney.
So if you decide to take steps to protect your work to the maximum, do it right. There’s just no replacement for the U.S. Copyright Office.
A word of caution
It’s important to remember that the chances of somebody illegally copying, distributing, or stealing your work — which could include lifting pieces or portions of your text, from your characters to your dialogue and worldbuilding — are extremely slim. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are the biggest taboos in the publishing industry, and almost everyone is extremely sensitive to it. The vast majority of professionals (we cannot emphasize this enough) will respect your book for what it is: an original work that’s not to be stolen from.
All the same, there remains the small, non-zero chance that you’ll face copyright infringement in your future, just as the odds are 1 in 75,000 you’ll get struck by a comet or asteroid in your lifetime.
So whether you register your copyright is a personal decision. It depends on your risk profile, and whether you think registration will contribute to your peace of mind.
INFOGRAPHIC: Guide to Copyright Registration
Now it's time for the fun stuff! "How to copyright a book?" is the burning question we'll answer next. To make the info easily digestible for you, we've recapped everything in a stunning infographic cheat sheet. And you can download it for free below!
How to copyright a book
You can register the copyright for your book directly through the U.S. Copyright Office. To start the online copyright registration process, follow these steps:
- Head over to the copyright.gov portal.
- Click on “Literary Works,” then “Register A Literary Work.”
- Take a minute to create an account with the U.S. Copyright Office if you didn’t do so already.
- Go to “Copyright Registration” on the left side of your screen and click on “Register A New Claim.”
- Click “Start Registration.”
- Complete the form.
- Pay the U.S. Copyright Office. Online registration will cost $35.
- Send in the "best edition" of your manuscript to the U.S. Copyright Office.
If you don’t trust the Internet, you can always submit a paper application to the U.S. Copyright Office. Your mailed-in package should include a printed version of the application, a copy of your work, and the filing fee ($85). The processing time is 10 - 15 months for paper applications.
Any work protected by U.S. copyright can be registered, regardless of your nationality. The paperwork might take months to process. But don’t worry: the day the Copyright Office receives your completed application is the effective date of registration.
Congrats! If you’ve taken the above steps, your copyright is registered: the fact that you own the intellectual property of your book is now a matter of public record.
Should you copyright a book cover?
If you design your book cover yourself, you own the copyright to it the moment you create it. Also, keep in mind that you should only use your own photographs or pictures for your cover, or else you might be infringing on someone else’s copyrighted work.
Usually, we strongly recommend self-publishing authors get a professional to design their book covers. In this case, even after an author has purchased a cover, the designer still owns the copyright to it. Your contract with the designer should cover the treatment of these rights.
Listen to Sean Lynch, an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles, explain why self-published authors might want to err on the side of caution and obtain the copyright for a commissioned book cover.
Differences between copyright in the U.S. and the rest of the world
While the U.S. Copyright Office strongly recommends copyright registration for all authors, it’s important to note that this might not be the case in the rest of the world.
For instance, there is no U.K. Copyright Office for copyright registration. If you’re self-publishing in the U.K., all you need to do is mail a copy of your work to the Legal Deposit Office of the British Library within one month of publication. Bear in mind that this only applies to print books, so don’t start mailing your Kindle to London all at once.
Likewise in Canada, where you only need to register if you want additional evidence to back yourself up in court. This is because the Berne Convention, an international agreement dating back to 1886, eliminated the need for domestic registration in most of its 164 signatory nations. But one exception (as you might’ve guessed) is the U.S., which still offers all the remedial incentives mentioned above for those who register.
Long story short, this is what authors from any country should know about the U.S. registration system:
- U.S. authors will need to register their work before they can bring a suit for copyright infringement in federal court.
- Foreign authors outside of the U.S. can sue for copyright infringement in the U.S. — though without copyright registration, they are not entitled to certain financial protections.
- If you’ve registered your work in the U.S., you’re covered in the U.S. and other countries signed on to the Berne Convention.
PRO TIP: Here’s where you can find the U.S. Copyright Office’s comprehensive rundown of its services and fees. Still curious about the money involved in independent publishing? See our study on the average costs of self-publication.
The Bottom Line
Now that you know a bit more about copyright, it’s up to you to take whichever steps you deem necessary to protect your work.
We believe that a well-informed author is a productive author. If you want to keep something nearby so you never forget your copyright basics, please feel free to download our previously mentioned cheat sheet: the Guide to Copyright Registration.
This post from Bookworks is a great recap of 5 Debunked Legal Myths For Writers — including ones about copyright.
Writers Beware, which is sponsored by the SFWA, is always a dependable place to get contract advice. We especially are fans of their Basic Copyright page and this blog post. And for more information on photography usage and whether or not you should register the copyright for a book cover, check out this post over on Book Design House and this post on CreativIndie.
Special thanks to the attorneys who contributed to this post and provided their knowledge:
- John Mason is an intellectual property attorney who specializes in copyright cases in the creative and entertainment industry. Contact John at www.copyrightcounselors.com or email@example.com.
- Sean Lynch is an intellectual property attorney who provides copyright and trademark advice to clients building businesses and brands. In addition, you can find Sean at slynchlaw.com and thesurflawyer.com.
- Henry Runge is an Associate Director of UNeTecH. He protects scientists' inventions and works with entrepreneurs and creatives to develop business opportunities for intellectual property.
Any stories to share about copyright? Tweet Reedsy (@ReedsyHQ) — we’d be delighted to know what you think. Any more questions about copyright? Let us know below and we’ll answer all of them personally. Your concerns are important to us.