I found it interesting that I recently received a contract from Five Star Publishing (FiveStar/Gale/Cengage) that had specific information about copyrighting my book and, at almost the same time, received an email from the Authors’ Guild that discussed the topic of copyright.

A lot of times new writers are so afraid their work will be stolen they place the copyright symbol © on their work. If they send the ms to an agent or editor, that symbol alone tells the agent/editor that this is a new, unpublished writer. Why? Because it really isn’t necessary unless the piece is such a hot item others are lurking around, waiting to steal it. (And that doesn’t apply to 99.9% of  the mss they receive.)

Basically the United States copyright law is governed by the federal Copyright Act of 1976. I won’t go into all of the parts of that law, but what writers need to know is the moment they put words to paper or into a computer file or as a blog or in any fixed form, it is copyrighted. It’s yours.

So why copyright your work at all?

The main reason is if you have to go to court over an infringement of the copyright, having the copyright registered through the U.S. Copyright Office will give your claim more strength.

And no, simply sending a copy of the work to yourself through unopened registered mail does not give you that protection.

Publishing houses used to always copyright the books they published. That is, they went through the process and paid the fee. I think it was some time in the early 1990s that writers began to learn that the publishers were no longer doing that. The copyright message was and still is printed in the book, but if the writer truly wanted the book officially copyrighted, he/she had to make the application and pay the fee. (Publishers saved money by no longer registering every book they published.)

For years this has been common knowledge, so I was surprised when the contract I just signed specifically stated that the copyright notice would be printed in the book, but I would have to do the filing myself if I wanted an officially registered copyright.

The email notice I received from the Authors’ Guild focused on how the book is registered. That is, under whose name is the work copyrighted?

The AG’s argument is all writers should have their work registered under their name, not the name of the publisher or the name of the university or company publishing the work. With most traditional publishers that’s not a problem. They print the copyright under the author’s name. (If a writer uses a pseudonym, you’ll sometimes see a different—the legal—name from what’s on the spine of the book.) If, however, the university or company has the work copyrighted under its name, the author is limited on how and where s/he can use the work or parts of the work…or even claim authorship.

So far I have never officially copyrighted my books, but I think I might do so with this new one, if nothing more than to see how the process works. It’s not expensive.

An application for copyright registration contains three essential elements: a completed application form, a nonrefundable filing fee, and a nonreturnable deposit—that is, a copy or copies of the work being registered and “deposited” with the Copyright Office. When the Copyright Office issues a registration certificate, it assigns as the effective date of registration the date it received all required elements in acceptable form, regardless of how long it took to process the application and mail the certificate of registration. The time needed to process  applications varies depending on the amount of material the Office is receiving and the method of application. You can apply to register your copyright in one of two ways.

Online registration through the electronic Copyright Office (eCO) is the preferred way to register basic claims for literary works; visual arts works; performing arts works, including motion pictures; sound recordings; and single serials. Advantages of online filing include:
• a lower filing fee – $35 for a single author who is also the sole claimant in a single work that is not made for hire – $55 for all other online filings
• the fastest processing time
• online status tracking
• secure payment by credit or debit card, electronic check, or Copyright Office deposit account
• the ability to upload certain categories of deposits directly into eCO as electronic files.
(Note: You can still register online and save money even if you submit a hard-copy deposit.)

Basic claims include
(1) a single work;
(2) multiple unpublished works

For more information visit or    or call the Copyright Office Toll Free 1-877-476-0778

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14 Responses to Copyright

  1. Peg Herring says:

    FS copyrighted my first book and got the name wrong. There’s another writer w the same name, which is why I use Peg, not Peggy. Since then she’s gotten the credit (or blame 🙂 ) for others of my books. A real pain.

  2. Diane Burton says:

    Timely post, Maris. Considering all the pirate sites that offer my books, I’ve been planning to go through the official copyright process. Thanks for the link to the copyright office.

  3. I’m glad to see the topic discussed here. I always copyright my novels and stories now. My first two publishers did so, but the very first one has gone out of business and its imprint disappeared, so now I have no way to get my copyright back if I want to reprint or resell the work. I requested and received the copyrights from my second publisher.

    I now copyright all my work, even short stories. In any legal case, the copyright holder has stronger rights.

    The other reason I do so is to take a stand against the weakening of writers’ rights to their work. It feels like we could soon have no effective ownership of our material. The courts have been chipping away at authorship rights in various court cases, and i find that disturbing.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I also find that disturbing, Susan.

      I’m not quite sure I understood the first part of your comment. Did the publisher copyright it under the publisher’s name? That’s a shame, and that’s what the Authors’ Guild is warning about.

  4. It never occurred to me that publishers would register the copyright in their name rather than the author’s and the possible problems that might arise from that practise.

    I registered copyright in my name for my novel via ECO. It took over 8 months for the copyright certificate to be issued, during which time the book went to print. Fortunately, since I’d informed Five Star I was going to register, they printed the copyright notice in my name in the book.

    Who knows if it will ever make any difference, but it makes me feel more comfortable to have registered my ownership of the work.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Allan, according to the copyright information, even though it took 8 months for that certificate to be issued, your story was copyrighted from the moment they received your fee, your application, and the copy of the book. (All three) And as far as I know, Five Star has always printed the copyright in the writer’s name. It’s universities and corporations that have the policy of copyrighting in their name, not the authors.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    I always copyright my books through the US Copyright office and put my name on it. While one of my publishers say that they want their name on it, I don’t do that because I have to change and refile should they close or I leave.

    It’s only $35 and I can take it off taxes as an expense.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Good for you, Melissa. I didn’t know book publishers (other than universities) were putting the copyright in their name. If you did put the copyright in the publisher’s name, I’m not sure you could refile without their permission…which is the danger.

  6. Lucy Kubash says:

    While I’ve never copyrighted any of my stories, I probably would do so if I self-published a novel. It looks like the publisher for my book does put the copyright in the author’s name.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Same here, Lucy. I’ve written for 5 different publishing houses and all 5 have put the copyright notice in my name. What they don’t seem to be doing now is actually filing for that copyright. If I want it official it will be my responsibility to file and pay the fee…which I plan on doing with this new book.

  7. Just completed the forms for In Lincoln’s Shadow. Years ago I went through a friend, a lawyer, who charged twice what I paid on line.

    In other words, thank you for sharing.