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Intellectual Property and Copyrights: The Basics

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Last week, we talked about being a good critique partner, and while we mentioned things like being nice and constructive, the main thing readers focused on was the trust required to share your work with someone before it’s published.

Ever since elementary school, we’ve all had it drilled into our heads that copying—a form of cheating—is bad. If you saw your child taking a test a school, you’d probably notice that their head is down, close to the desk, and their arm is curled protectively around their paper the same way a hen protects her newly-hatched chicks. This is because we, as humans, have an innate fear that someone will steal our thoughts, our hard work, and brilliant breakthroughs.

For a writer, this fear is magnified. Each of us has, at one point or another, thought about what will happen to all that hard work if someone plagiarizes your book. Will my book get the recognition it deserves? Can I prove plagiarism? Can I afford to take them to court?

Knowing even the basics will help you navigate the waters of book publishing, so check out the Wise Ink breakdown of copyright law and intellectual property rights.…


Your words are automatically copyrighted when you write them down. Neat, isn’t it? No need to register it. No need to pass go before you collect $200. Your stuff is safe and is yours, forever and ever. However, even if it’s only written down on a bar napkin, your ideas need to be written down to be yours (audio recording also suffices).

If you want to make double sure everyone knows you’re copyrighted, you can write on your work “Copyright © [year] by [your name]. If you’re writing on the computer and don’t know how to make that neat © symbol, copy and past it from here. Or you can type “c” and physically draw the circle around  a printed-out copy. Or just leave it out, as the text is automatically copyrighted and the word “copyright” does the same thing as the ©.

If writing © on your text still isn’t enough and you want to make triply sure your work is protected, you can also register your copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office for a fee. While this is a legal formality, it creates a public record that your book belongs to you. In the event that someone steals your work, you must register your work before you can file a suit for infringement.

In our experience, just attaching a copyright notice to your work before you give it to the members of a new writing group or your friends is sufficient to deter any theft. No such warning is necessary when submitting your work to editors or literary agents (the reputable ones, that is), as they already know copyright law.

Now, you will come across a book that closely resembles yours at some point. Most likely, this is not a result of plagiarism. Public interest and fads happen in waves—just think of all those YA vampire books in the past couple of years—and the underlying theme or concept of a book cannot be copyrighted. Only the words can. If there’s another book like yours, just focus on making yours better in its own right, and you’ll blow the competition out of the water.

Copyright gives you the economic control of your work, but you can assign or sell part of that control to someone else by selling them “use rights.” Though there are many kinds of use rights—far too many to get into in this post—it is most important to know that only “all rights” will stop you from selling your rights every again.

If you’d like more information on copyrights, you can look at the booklet prepared by the U.S. Copyright Office.

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