How To Copyright A Book: A Definitive Guide
[Last updated: 11/6/2018]
Want to know how to copyright a book you've written? That’s probably a smart idea. You don’t want this nightmarish scenario to occur a year down the road: you’re in a bookstore and you pick up a random novel. You notice that the dialogue sounds familiar. 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, if you're self-publishing a book, then the onus is on you to educate yourself on all aspects of the business — which includes protecting your intellectual property.
Obligatory disclaimer: no-one at Reedsy is an attorney — this is by no means professional advice. But to make the topic easier for authors to unpack, we conducted research and spoke with practicing attorneys and have unmuddied the waters for you.
What is copyright?
Copyright is just that: the right to copy. When books are published, this right prevents others from replicating 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.”
How does protection work?
There are four exclusive rights that you, the author, possesses. 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).
Oh, and one more thing: 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 rights 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?
What is registered copyright?
If you register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, you’ve created a public record of your authorship so the whole world can see that you are the creator of your intellectual property. This is what people mean when they say that you need to “copyright your book.”
Here’s the rub: registration costs money. So why do people do it? In a word: insurance.
Let’s say you didn’t register with a federal body, and now you believe that somebody is infringing on your intellectual property. Even if you want to sue for meaningful compensation, you can't. You must register with the U.S. Copyright Office before you can bring a suit to enforce it.
It’s important to remember that the chances of somebody illegally infringing upon your work are extremely slim. Theft of intellectual property is the publishing industry's biggest taboo. The vast majority of professionals (we can’t emphasize this enough) will respect your book for what it is: an original work that’s not to be stolen from.
Still, there remains a tiny, non-zero chance that someone will infringe on your rights 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 is up to you. It depends on your risk profile, and whether you think registration will give you peace of mind. Got that? Let’s move onto the main event: what you need to do to actually register your copyright.
How to copyright a book
To start the online 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. 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 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 register your book before sending it to a publisher?
It isn’t mandatory to register your book before showing it to editors or agents.
But they might turn into the Night-Thief and make away with my book! Don’t worry. 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.
That said, the U.S. Copyright Office does urge “timely registration” — which means registering within three months of the work’s publication date, or before any infringement takes place.
This earns you some pretty big 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.
Poor man’s copyright
In the past, you might’ve caught wind of something called 'poor man’s copyright.' Instead of paying the government office in Washington, 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 general legal consensus is that this 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.
INFOGRAPHIC: Guide to Copyright Registration
Now it's time for the fun stuff! To make all of this info easily digestible for you, we've recapped everything in a new infographic. Download it for free below!
VIDEO: Copyrighting a Book (in 60 seconds)
What about international copyright?
While the U.S. Copyright Office strongly recommends 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. equivalent.
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.
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 infringement in federal court.
- Foreign authors outside of the U.S. can sue for infringement in the U.S. — though, without 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 rundown of its services and fees. Curious about the total cost of independent publishing? See our study on the average costs of self-publication.
The bottom line
Now that you're armed with a little bit of knowledge, 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 basics, that’s what our cheat sheet is for.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 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.
If you're in the finishing stages of completing a book? Check out our blog post that details the technical process of making a book.
Any stories to share? Any more questions? Let us know below and we’ll answer all of them personally!