Copyright Office Conundrum

copyrightFor those of you lucky enough to have a work published, whether self-published, traditionally published, or somewhere in between, one question that comes up often is when to submit your work for copyright. The process is long and does have costs associated with it. So I’m offering this handy guide on when to submit your work and how.

The first thing to know when working with copyrights is that no one cares whether you have a copyright or not until you convince someone else you have an item of value. Copyrights were established to set the standard for determining who has the rights to copy material produced, whether it be artwork, writing, or otherwise.

moneybagsI know that every author wants to believe their book is worth millions, just as every mother believes her baby is the cutest in the world. It’s true there are a lucky few who do have a novel worth millions, just as at any one time there are a few babies around the world who could win a nation’s cutest baby competition. But unless you’ve sold several dozen copies, rushing your first book to the copyright office as soon as you have submitted your pdf file to the printer is probably premature.

How can you decide when to submit for a copyright? I recommend waiting until one of the two following conditions are met:

  1. You’ve sold enough copies of that book to pay off all production costs as well as the cost of submitting a copyright.
  2. You’re prepping to sell the movie rights.

The first condition is one many books will never meet, and achieving that many sales shows there is something of value in it. It is proof that the book is giving back more than you put into it. Until that magical point, your book is something you spent money on to put on your shelf. But when you finally cover your production expenses, then the book has value, and so do the rights to make copies.

Clapper-board medThe second condition is necessary, because if you do convince a movie studio that your book is worth making into a movie, one of the first things they will do is submit the book to the copyright office to secure their rights, which they are planning to purchase from you. The cost of producing a movie is so large that the cost of failing in the attempt to copyright the book as well as the script is miniscule, like a fly on the back of a whale. There is money involved, and you’ve convinced someone the movie rights have value. It helps to enter into such negotiations with all of your rights legally secured before you negotiate which rights you are willing to sell and how much they are worth.

I’ve heard many authors worry that joining a critique group will allow the other members to steal their work, and their ideas, and that copyrighting the manuscript before it is even edited is the only way to protect yourself.
pegasusThis is a myth, much like the winged horses in my books.

First of all, everyone in that group thinks their own book is better than yours, that’s why they’re writing it. I’ve never met an author yet who abandoned their novel to try and write their own version of someone else’s material. There is that small group of writers to write fan fiction, but those books can never be sold without the consent of the copyright holder. George Lucas may be willing to give you permission to write in the Star Wars universe, if you’re a really good writer and don’t step on his canonized version of the past and future of the Star Wars characters, but few other creators will ever do so.

Secondly, and more importantly, in technical terms, the right to make copies of your work is established the first time you show a copy to someone else. From the very first chapter submitted the very first time to a critique group, your work belongs to you.

Why then is there a copyright office?

LawyerBecause registering for an official copyright allows the small fish to swim in the big pond. If someone else claims your work as their own, you will have to prove in a court of law that you are the actual creator. That can be hard to do if their lawyer is better than yours, unless you have an officially registered copyright. Then it is almost iron clad.

Again, this comes back to works of value. If your book is worth hiring lawyers to try and steal from you, you can protect your legal rights by filing with the copyright office. Until you reach a point where your work is worth spending several thousand dollars protecting in court, a copyright isn’t even worth hanging on the wall.

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