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Monday, December 3, 2007

Safe Submitting, Part 1: Protecting Your Work

As a writer, your work is one of your most cherished possessions. You nurture it. You polish it. You pour months, if not years, of your life into it. Letting go if it long enough to try to get it published is scary enough, but if you stop to think about the people out there who make their livings preying on the dreams of writers, it can get downright terrifying.

But it doesn’t have to be. The truth is that the majority of people in the writing business are relatively honest and on the up-and-up. But you should still take steps to protect yourself against the unscrupulous minority that’s determined to take advantage of the unsuspecting and the uninformed.

The first step in protecting your work is establishing ownership. The most common, and without a doubt the best, way of doing this is by filing the finished work with the U.S. Copyright Office (or your nation’s equivalent). There are many services out there that will handle this for you for a nominal fee, but the fact is that you don’t really need them. Copyrighting an unpublished work is as simple as filling out a one-page form and sending a copy of your book to the copyright office.

You may be tempted to save yourself the filing cost ($45 at the time of this writing), and use a shortcut often referred to as a “poor man’s copyright”. This involves sealing your work in an envelope and mailing it to yourself, with the postmark establishing the date of completion. The problem with this is that it can be easily faked by sending an unsealed envelope, and isn’t likely to stand up if you ever need to rely on it in court. That $45 may seem like a lot of money to a struggling artist, but the cost is well worth the protection you receive. Consider it an investment in your own peace of mind.

Second, limit your risk by sharing the work only with those you trust, as well as legitimate agents and publishers (more on what makes a legitimate agent in our next installment). Posting your newly-finished book on your blog or website makes it easier to steal and may even hurt your chances of eventually getting it published. If you still want to post your work online, make sure it’s accompanied by a clear statement of copyright. If you’re going to share your work in this way, registration is a must.

Finally, theft isn’t the only thing that can threaten your manuscript. Many of you are just a hard drive crash or a misplaced USB drive away from losing your work forever (trust me on this; I speak from experience). So, be sure to back up all your files, preferably on a permanent medium, like a CD, and make sure you have a printed copy in a safe place in case all else fails.

Next time, we’ll talk about how to protect yourself from scam agents and other predators. In the meantime, get back to writing.

Christopher Hawkins


Becca said...

Some agents DON'T want you to register your copyright yourself. The intellectual property laws in our country protect your work the instant it's written.

(you can read them all or just scroll down to 11.02.2005--"C is for Chucklehead.")

Christopher Hawkins said...

You're correct in that copyright is established as soon as your work is put down on paper. However, PROOF of that copyright is not. By registering your copyright, you have more legal recourse in the unlikely event that it is stolen.

Which actually brings up another good point (and Miss Snark hits the nail on the head here): whether you register your copyright or not, you don't need to post a copyright notice when you send your work to an agent. Many consider it amateurish.

Christopher Hawkins said...

Also, I might be missing something, but neither of the posts you cite appear to suggest that you shouldn't register a copyright. In fact, Jonathan Lyons even states that "Registering your book is always the safest and wisest course of action."