by Anne R. Allen
Should I pay to copyright my manuscript?
Will a publisher or agent steal my plot from a query?
How can I protect my ideas?
We get asked these questions a lot. Until recently, our standard answer was: “Stop worrying about it. Your work is automatically copyrighted as soon as you type it onto your hard drive.”People who are paranoid about the theft of an unpublished manuscript or who obsess about somebody “stealing their ideas” red-flag themselves as amateurs.
American copyright laws passed in the early 1970s state that anything you write is automatically copyrighted as soon as you type it onto a page (or a hard drive.)
- You don’t have to mail it to yourself.
- Or put the little © on the title page.
- Or pay a copyright service. It only costs $35 to copyright a manuscript with the US government.
- Never use a copyright “service”. If you want the extra protection of an official copyright, go right to the US Copyright Office—make sure it’s got a .gov address.
But even if you don’t register your work with the government, it is fully copyrighted as soon as you write it down.
But once you register the copyright, unfortunately, you’re setting yourself up as prey for scammy vanity presses. Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware warns that you should NOT register copyright for unpublished work. It’s not only unnecessary, but:
“You may be solicited by questionable companies. Vanity publishers and dodgy literary agents have long used copyright registration lists (and magazine subscription lists) to troll for customers.”
How Do I Keep People from Stealing my Ideas?
I understand that plot theft tends to be on the minds of a lot of new writers. Most writers believe our ideas are unique and glorious.
We need to believe this or we’d never be able to push ourselves through the long, tough slog of actually crafting the ideas into readable prose.
But a raw idea isn’t worth as much as we think. A lot of people over-inflate the value of a plot. These are usually people who don’t understand the hard work involved in turning that plot idea into a book.
You run into these people at parties. They tell you they have a dynamite idea for your next book and if you just “write down the words”, they’ll split the profits with you 50/50.
The Fifty-Fifty Split Offers…
Every writer meets up with this phenomenon at some point. The New Yorker has a spoof of one of these encounters in “Shouts and Murmurs” in this week’s issue, “An Unsolicited Great Idea for Your Next Book“ by Jacob Sager Weinstein. It’s hilarious. Here’s a quote:
“He had become a writer for the same reason anybody did: he was incapable of coming up with ideas of his own, and he longed for a lifetime of being given them at cocktail parties.”
And a few years ago, Victoria Strauss wrote at Writer Beware about some guy who was trying to sell his plot idea on eBay for ten million dollars.
“It can be compared to stories like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Matrix, Indiana Jones…and will bring in endless fame and money to anyone who takes it.”
He’s not the only starry-eyed doofus who has combined delusions of grandeur with total cluelessness about the effort required to actually write a novel or screenplay and then get it in front of the public.In the thread of the same post at Writer Beware, children’s author Kathleen Duey talked about the unsolicited-plot-idea people who want to share the profits 50/50.
“Try that split on any other kind of business person,” Duey wrote. “‘I think that a colony on Mars would be awesome and I am willing to give a 50% share of all eventual proceeds to anyone who can make it happen.'”She reminds us to run away before one of these idea-people get going, in case you ever write something similar by accident. Delusional folks can be scary.
(I used that situation as a plot device in my comic mystery set at a small UK publishing house, Sherwood Ltd. On sale at Amazon this week. See below.)
Personally, when somebody approaches me with this “proposition,” I say, “the going rate for ghostwriters is $50-$200 an hour. I don’t provide that service, but I can get you a referral.”
Most writers have plenty of story ideas of our own. Our biggest fear is not living long enough to write them all.
So why Can’t you Copyright an Idea?
Here’s what the copyright law says (Section 102(b)) “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embodied in such work.”
Ideas, systems, and concepts come under the laws for patents and trademarks, which usually don’t apply to books.
Copyrights only cover “original works of authorship” that the author puts into a tangible form (paper, hard drive, etc,) That is, it protects your book after it’s written. No one can steal, reprint or profit from your written work without your consent.
So you can’t protect the ideas or plot of your story.
But don’t let that bother you too much. Plots get recycled all the time, and nobody loses. A guy named William Shakespeare lifted every one of his plots from other writers. His history plays are mostly taken from Holinshed’s Chronicles, and he even took storylines from other playwrights. He ripped off Plautus’s Menaechmi to write The Comedy of Errors. And a few centuries later Rogers and Hart stole the same plot to write The Boys from Syracuse.
And you know what? They were all wildly successful. Everybody won.
Can’t I Copyright my Logline?
Yes. You can copyright a logline (a one-sentence summary of a plot, usually used for screenplays) but all somebody has to do is alter a few words and it’s not under the copyright, so that’s pretty pointless.
“There are no new stories, just new ways of telling them.”
Seriously. You may think you’re the first person who ever thought of that storyline, but you probably aren’t. Experts don’t agree on the exact number of narrative plots, but there aren’t many:
- In the 19th century, Georges Polti listed 36 Dramatic Situations.
- In 1993, Ronald Tobias counted 20 Master Plots.
- In 2005, Christopher Booker compressed the list to Seven Basic Plots.
- The legendary agent who used to blog as “Miss Snark” said there were six.
- I found an article in Author Magazine that listed only five.
So the number seems to be shrinking, but everybody agrees it is finite.
But…What About Piracy?
However, there is another issue that has emerged with the rise of ebooks, blogs, and self-publishing: piracy of published books and blogs.
I’m having to deal with this myself. Last week I discovered the content of this blog—lifted in its entirety, all the way back to my first 200-word post in 2009—on a weird Portuguese site that offered two things: this blog and The Bible.
Yup, Ruth and me and the Word of God. Pretty much the same thing, right? Ha!
These pirates are as shameless as they are creepy.
We also contacted Google with a DMCA notice. More on that below. Also, I’ve discovered a new program that removes illegal content from Google. It’s called Blasty. It’s free while it’s still in beta. We hope it will get rid of the blog pirate.
Pirates find indie books an easy target. Independent authors without a big publishing house’s staff of lawyers look like easy prey.
A few months ago some guy took a bunch of ebooks, pasted his own name on the covers over the authors’ names (often not even obscuring the real author) and put his stolen versions on Amazon under his own name. I saw them on a Facebook group page. They looked ridiculous. But the guy must have made enough money siphoning off sales that it was worth his while.
Amazon took the phony books down after a bunch of complaints, but there are thousands of other slightly less lazy pirates out there stealing ebooks right now.
In fact ebook theft seems to be getting worse by the day, as author John Doppler reported in a blogpost titled Kindle Counterfeiting in August.
Erotica authors seem to be the most common targets. Pirates will download books that are on a freebie run, change the title and author name, and upload them to Amazon as their own.
Amazon works hard to fight this kind of piracy, and they will work with the author if you report the theft. There will be a paper trail if Amazon paid royalties to the pirates. Sometimes you can even get the royalties back, according to Mr. Doppler.
Unfortunately registering the book with the copyright office will not do much to deter this kind of pirate. Copyright registration is only useful if you take these people to court, which isn’t easy when the pirates are working out of some cafe in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh.
I’ve just heard of a whole new type of plagiarism I wasn’t aware of. There are people who will steal an author’s book, change the names of the characters (and sometimes their gender) and rewrite a few phrases per page, then publish the novel as their own work. It’s especially happening to romance writers.
Apparently one “author” has even been taking bestselling straight romances, changing them to m/m romances with a few tweaks and making quite a career of it. There’s more about this on Jenny Trout’s blog, Trout Nation.
As soon as the plagiarism was reported to retail sites, the stolen books were taken down. But that’s just one person who was caught. I’m sure there are more out there. Since m/m and straight romances generally have different audiences, people have been getting away with this kind of book theft for a while.
Torrent Pirate Sites
We also have the problem of “torrent” sites. (These are sites that use a protocol called “BitTorrent” for free file sharing.)
These sites seem to be offering your books for free, but they often only deliver the “look inside” 10% of the book that’s already offered free on Amazon. This is because they don’t actually want to make money off stolen books.
They use the “free” books to install malware on the users’ electronic devices.
Of course, some illegal file-sharers steal your stuff just because they think everything should be free and artists don’t deserve to be paid. These people have been ripping off musical artists ever since the Internet began, and the practice has spilled into ebooks.
Sometimes the pirates don’t even have malevolent intentions. In many parts of the world, readers can’t access legitimate ebook stores. Amazon blocks users in most of the African continent, the Middle East and much of Asia.
Torrent sites are the only way readers in those places can access your ebooks unless you get on local sites in their countries through aggregators like Smashwords, D2D and BookBaby.
As Neil Young said several years ago, “piracy is how music gets around these days.” Now piracy is the way ebooks get around. Especially in Asia and Africa.
We probably don’t need to freak out all that much about that kind of piracy. We know freebie runs and perma-free books help build a fan base. Think of these Asian and African pirate sites as a way to build your audience in countries where your book isn’t sold yet… and when your book comes out in translation, or on a legit site, you’ll have a fan base.
Fighting Piracy and Counterfeiters
But in general, content theft is a growing problem, and counterfeiting of the kind Mr. Doppler talked about—your own book sold by someone else on a major retail site—can really cut into an author’s bottom line.
Newer laws have been passed to try to curb intellectual property theft, but they don’t always do much good.The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed in the 1990s to deal with copyright infringement on the Internet. If you find material online that infringes a copyright you hold—whether that copyright has been officially registered or not—you can send the hosting website a DMCA notice. When the hosting website gets it, it MUST remove the material and notify the person who posted it.
Unfortunately, pirates know how to game the law to steal an author’s work and there’s often not much we can do about it.
However, if you are wealthy enough to hire an attorney, you can file a lawsuit. And to file a lawsuit—as opposed to a DMCA notice—you do need to have registered the copyright.
Attorney Helen Sedwick Weighs in
Intellectual property attorney Helen Sedwick has a step-by-step how-to on her blog telling us how to deal with content theft..
She thinks you SHOULD copyright your book in order to fight the pirates.
Sedwick says, “You cannot file a lawsuit unless the work is registered with the US Copyright Office. If you threaten to sue, and the infringer searches copyright records and doesn’t find your registration, they may call your bluff.”
For more on how to register your copyright, see Joel Friedlander’s post How to Copyright Your Book.But another intellectual property attorney, Kathryn Goldman, doesn’t think an individual author has much of a chance with a lawsuit. She addressed the problem on Molly Greene’s blog in a 2-part piece called “Has Your Ebook Been Pirated?”
She says your best way to deal with pirates is contact Google with your DMCA notice to downrank their site so people won’t find it when searching for your book.
“…if you find your book on a torrent site, you can file a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) removal request with Google and other search engines. Here is Google’s DMCA form. If Google receives a sufficient number of takedown requests for a particular site, their new algorithm may downrank the torrent site in search engine results pages.”
She says, “Suppressing search result rankings may be the best option for an individual author with respect to the problem of work appearing on illegal torrent sites.”
Does Registering your Copyright Protect you from Pirates?
Unfortunately US copyright laws don’t help much against pirates unless 1) you have the money for a pricey court battle, 2) the pirates are under the jurisdiction of US laws.
Here’s the thing: US copyright registration doesn’t do much to fight elusive third-world pirate sites. And it doesn’t always hold weight with Amazon, who will take your book down if anybody claims to have written it—even if you have the registered copyright. At least that’s what happened to author Becca Mills when a pirate sent a DMCA on her own copyrighted book, which was discussed on The Passive Voice blog in March of 2015.
Amazon took it down and refused to put it back. They considered this a “dispute between private parties” even though Becca Mills didn’t even know the identity of the person who sent the DMCA and she had registered the copyright.
Other Ways to Fight the Theft of Ebooks.
If the pirates are reselling your books on Amazon, follow these steps outlined by Jon Doppler
- Assemble a list of the ASINs for each version of your books.
- Search retailers regularly to ensure that only legitimate copies with your ASINs are present.
- File a copyright infringement report immediately when counterfeits are discovered.
He says you shouldn’t bother contacting customer service for copyright issues; go directly to the legal department. Amazon provides an online form for filing a copyright infringement notice, or you can email your own DMCA notice to Amazon’s legal department, via copyright @ amazon.com.
What Should You Do to Protect Yourself?
- Register your copyright if you want extra protection in case of a lawsuit
- Keep track of your AISNs
- File a DMCA notice with Google and Amazon if you see piracy.
- You might want to download Blasty. (It’s free right now because it’s still in beta.)
For unpublished authors planning to go the traditional route:
- Do NOT register your copyright. You’ll only set yourself up as prey for scammers. Writers have a lot to be wary of these days: scammy vanity publishers, bogus literary agencies, disappearing fly-by-night small presses, fake social media marketers, draconian contracts, trollish critiquers—but plot-purloiners should not be high on the list.
- Never mention copyright in a query, or you’ll look like a paranoid doofus.
Anne R. Allen is the author of ten books, including the bestselling CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES and HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE, co-written with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde.
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