Copyrighting a book is easy to do, but the nature of the copyright protection is complex. An author owns the copyright to a book the moment it is written—before publishing the book or looking at copyright registration. To copyright a book completely, however, the author needs the added protection of federal registration.
Read on to learn more about how to copyright a book, what copyright actually protects, and how secure your rights are as an author before publishing a book.
How Copyright Protects a Book
The name says it all—copyright is the right to copy a work. Copyright prevents bookstores from buying one book from the author, making copies and then selling them to its customers. The customers are not just buying the book; they are buying the author’s intellectual property: the story, the characters and the setting.
The exact nature of the copyright depends on the nature of the book. A phonebook has very little, if any, copyrightable material. It is simply a list of facts. A romantic novel has a lot of copyrightable material. In addition to the pages of the book, copyright extends to the order of the plot, specific characters or elements of the broader world that it creates.
For example, if you write a chatty historical novel where the romantic heroine must choose between the charming noble or the lowly farmer in the Scottish highlands then your copyright may extend beyond the exact story. If another author publishes a similar novel set in the Ming Dynasty and uses similar plot points or characters then you may be able to assert your copyright against them. But how can you best make your case?
How to Copyright a Book
Your book is copyrighted the moment you write it. But what if your novel is sitting on the hard drive of your computer? Even if you can prove that you had written it before the Ming Dynasty book was published, you would be out of luck.
The reason is notice. Unless the author of the Ming Dynasty book read your manuscript, you would have no claim against him. Copyright prevents copying—it does nothing to stop mutual (or simultaneous) co-creation. If two people come up with the same idea, at the same time, completely unaware of each other, then both would have equal claim to the copyright.
To get the full benefit of copyright for a book, you must register your copyright. Registration creates constructive notice…and constructive notice is very, very important.
Registering a copyright is easy and, compared to other forms of intellectual property protection, inexpensive. Especially for something like a novel, registering a copyright gives the author tremendous intellectual property protection. To register a book or other creative work, simply go to copyright.gov, the website set up by the Library of Congress. There is an online portal to register copyrights for photographs, sculptures and written works. Fill out the form, pay the fee and you are registered. To make things easier, you can also use an online resource to register your work for you.
Why should an author register the copyright for their book?
Constructive notice allows you to assert your copyright against anyone from the date of registration forward; whereas copyright only prevents others from copying your work. The author of the Ming Dynasty novel, for example, can always argue that he never read your book. Unless you can prove he read it, you cannot prove infringement.
However, once a work is registered, it does not matter if he read it. Constructive notice makes prior knowledge of your book irrelevant. Your book and all its characters, settings and stories are yours and if anyone infringes any part of it then you can assert your rights.
Should you register your copyright before publishing your book?
Authors have more ways to publish their books than at any other time. No matter how rapidly technology allows books to be published, registration is just as important. Once you publish a book, it is out there for the world to see. The important creative choices that you made—the characters, the story or even the elements of a non-fiction book—are all protected, in some way, by the copyright to your book.
If you want to protect the use of character, the arrangement of advice or the selection of travel destinations to write about, then registering your work will put the world on notice that this book is your intellectual property. If you do not, then you will need to prove that another author had access to and copied your ideas.
Written By by Joe Runge, Esq. Freelance writer