Monday, February 25, 2013

Why Not to Register Copyright for Unpublished Work

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

If you have an unpublished manuscript that you're shopping to agents and/or publishers, or considering self-publishing, there's no need to register your copyright prior to publication.

Why?

Well, for one thing, you're fully protected by copyright law from the moment you fix your work in tangible form (write down the words). In countries that have an official copyright registration process--and many don't--registration provides no additional copyright protection.

It does confer various legal benefits. Where available, official registration provides prima facie evidence of copyright ownership that can be used in court. In the US only, registration is a pre-requisite for filing a copyright infringement lawsuit.

However, you are not in danger of copyright infringement at the submission stage. Many authors have an unreasonable fear of theft by agents and publishers--but good agents and publishers won't risk their reputations this way, and in any case it's easier just to work with you than go to all the trouble of stealing your work and pretending it belongs to someone else. As for bad agents and publishers...they aren't interested in your work at all, only in your money.

It's not until your manuscript is about to be exposed to a large audience--i.e., published--that you need to think about copyright registration. If you publish with a larger publishing house, the publisher will take care of this for you. For small presses, you may have to take care of it on your own. Ditto for self-publishing (you may be able to pay the service to register for you, but this will always be more expensive than doing it yourself).

By the way, don't be confused by the many faux registration services (such as this one or this one). Whatever datestamping or timestamping they provide is not a substitute for official registration--and possibly won't hold up in court, since it can be faked. So-called "poor man's copyright"--putting a manuscript in an envelope, mailing it to yourself, and retaining it unopened--is similarly useless, though it's often touted online as a cheap registration substitute.

Why else might you want to avoid registering copyright for unpublished work? 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. Dorrance Publishing--an old-line vanity publisher that has re-tooled itself for the digital age--is a particular offender in this regard. Here's an example, recently received by a writer who knew better than to respond:

Dear [name redacted],

One of our researchers has discovered your manuscript titled, [title redacted], registered with the Library of Congress and has forwarded your name to me as a possible candidate for publication with our company.

As an author, you are probably aware of (and perhaps have experienced) some of the problems of trying to get your work published by a commercial publisher. Just having your manuscript read by most commercial publishers is difficult and usually involves long delays.

Dorrance Publishing Company, Inc. provides a practical alternative for consideration by authors of book length fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, collections of poetry, collections of short stories, children’s books, etc., who wish to see their works in print.

The Dorrance name has been associated with a tradition of quality author services since 1920. I welcome the opportunity to discuss our services with you and to review your manuscript to determine whether it meets our requirements for publication, and if so, if we can be of help. You may submit your completed, typewritten manuscript to me for a no-fee, no-obligation review.

Also, I will be happy to send you a complimentary copy of our 32-page brochure, Author's Guide to Subsidy Publishing. The brochure outlines our publishing programs, including the manner in which we mechanically edit, design, produce, and promote our books.
The email goes on to provide submission instructions. Note that, except for the word "subsidy" in the last paragraph, no mention whatever is made of fees. In fact, Dorrance charges thousands of dollars to publish.

For more on copyright, see the Copyright page of the Writer Beware website.

12 comments:

F.A.Ellis said...

Helpful post.I'm going the self publishing route to see how it is.I'm think about publishing a short story to start off with.I'm kind of nervous about it,but I going to have a go at it,to see what's it like.

Inkling said...

The Copyright Office's new pre-registration procedure does have one major advantage. It allows you to make a strong legal case that you were drafting a particular plot using a certain set of characters at a specific time.

Later, if someone accuses you of stealing their work, they'll probably have to prove publication prior to when you submitted what the copyright office calls "as full a description of the work as possible" rather than publication prior to your publication.

If you've got a hot idea for a novel or a screenplay, preregistering an overview could allow you to relax and better refine the plot rather than rushing to print, fearful someone will beat you to publication.

There's more about preregistration here:

http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-prereg.html#what_is

Note that it isn't cheap. Filing is $115 per application.

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

I'm one of the ones who tried to "copyright" his work when he was querying. I still have the sealed registered letter with a thumbdrive inside with my manuscript on it. Of course now I know that there's really no practical risk of a publisher or agent stealing your work.

Marilynn Byerly said...

If you register your work too soon in the editorial process, you may have to copyright it a second time because you've changed it so much.

I don't recall the percentage, but it is mentioned on the US government copyright site.

Frances Grimble said...

In the current copyright climate it is a very good idea for creators of short stories, essays, articles, poems, drawings, photos, and other not-yet-published material due to appear in periodicals and anthologies, to register that material separately from the periodical or anthology’s registration. You can register a group of items in one batch to save on the fees. Authors, myself included, used to think that the publisher’s copyright registration of the whole work after publication was sufficient coverage. I am not a lawyer, but it seems that the ever-growing body of entities who are mass-scanning publications to be downloaded from databases (free or fee), to be put online free to garner ad sales, and many other uses, are legally arguing that the publisher’s registration only covers the compilation, essentially the work of editorial selection, not the individual story, article, etc., because the author did not personally register his/her own work. I have certainly found a fair number of my own magazine articles (to which I still own appropriate rights) in online databases where the database publisher was charging users to download it, with no payment to me and no notification to me.

You can register your story, article, etc., shortly after publication but then, it might be harder for you to get a batch of stories or whatever together to reduce the fee.

Here is where I show even more that I am not a lawyer, but: Since US copyright procedures have not caught up to the online world (and I am *not*, as many do, using that argument to advocate piracy) I think it may be unclear whether a continually changing blog or website is published or not. I mean yes, you should put a copyright notice on it, but if anyone violated your copyright (and people do), it might be very hard to prove in court whether you posted the material before they did, which might be as much proof as there is of who really created it. If I were putting material I had first posted online into a book, I would probably register it beforehand.

Frances Grimble said...

Also, I am afraid you may sometimes have to worry about other authors. Here is an experience of mine:

For two or three years, my articles were frequently published in a certain magazine on vintage clothing. The publisher had a group of magazines focusing on various hobbies. As far as I know they were reputable. I always sold them first serial rights only. I subscribed to the magazine because I liked it and it is often hard to get tear sheets out of editors. Then the publishing group was bought by another company. Not long afterward, I opened the latest monthly issue and hit the roof. An article of mine that had been published in that same magazine less than a year previously was repeated, word for word, 2,000 words, under another “author’s” name.

Of course I contacted the new publisher, who swore it was not their fault and who said they were unable to contact the plagiarizer because she was refusing to answer their phone calls, so they could do nothing substantial about it. (They did write me a check for a couple of hundred dollars, big deal.) It’s not like I could afford to sue, and shortly thereafter, the new publisher ceased to publish that magazine.

Around that time, my articles were also frequently published in a certain antiques magazine. A new magazine on vintage clothing started up soon after the one I already mentioned went under. This was an “indie” publication of decidedly uneven quality, run by two people. Shortly after they started up, I noticed that they were regularly publishing articles of mine that had previously been published in the antiques magazine, all under the name of the same person who had plagiarized me before. Oh, this time the “author” went to the effort of changing about one word per sentence, but otherwise the articles were identical. I called up one of the owners/editors and pointed out all this. She said, “Well, you say you published it first and so does she, and I just never get involved these little personal arguments.” (BTW, I have never met or had any direct contact with the other “author.”) I pointed out that copyright is a matter of federal law and international law. She seemed a little shaken but said she just didn’t know anything about copyright. And the magazine kept right on publishing the plagiarized articles for a year or so, till they went out of business, as they richly deserved.

I also saw the same “author” plagiarize other people’s work with minor changes, but my primary concern was my own work. And it’s just too expensive to sue over most magazine articles.

This experience gave me a permanent fear of exposing my work to other authors before registration.

Victoria Strauss said...

Frances, I agree with you that registration is important for published or about-to-be-published work (i.e., work for which the author has a firm publishing commitment). Your examples demonstrate this. My point in this post is that for unpublished work, at the submission stage, it really is not necessary.

Frances Grimble said...

I believe the CO would treat an about-to-be-published as unpublished, in terms of registration and submission requuirements. Also, I don't think it's legally clear whether a blog is published or not, and if I had one and I had any idea of ever using the material for magazine articles or a book, I'd be periodically registering hunks of it as unpublished and later, register the magazine article or book as published.

Anonymous said...

for unpublished work, at the submission stage, it really is not necessary

About 10 years ago,when I was 20, I liked to write small stories, just for fun. Since I'm poor I can't afford registering nothing. Long story short, somebody stole the notebook where I kept the stories. Now you can see two USA TV programs using my plots and according to my online research, earning millions. I know for sure those are my stories, because they are even using the same names for characters and world-related terms!

I won a scholarship in a script writing institute and commented to my teachers about that notebook and guess what: One of them told me to sent him another of my stories by e-mail (that I still keep), so he could check if it was good and then send it to a contest made by the mexican government. I did it and... never heard of the teacher or the school again. But the winner of that contest was a woman with a story so similar to mine that I decided never wrote a word again. I was thinking in starting a blog to show some new ideas I have but after reading all the comments here I think I won't. It just doesn't worth it. And not for the money, since I have never had it, but seeing all their success with my ideas is killing me (Still I don't know what to do since I'm making games based on my stories, so same problems :( ).

People, paranoia or not, if you ever write anything, REGISTER IT IMMEDIATELY.

Matthew Warner said...

Good post, Victoria, but I disagree with your conclusion. I wrote a response here: http://matthewwarner.com/2013/03/why-to-register-copyright-for-unpublished-works/

William Herr said...

I recieved the same email, and also did not respond. However, my contact was after registration with the Library of Congress.

I do not have a problem with a legitimate business following up leads to generate business. That is, after all, what business is all about. However, someone who was a little less inclined to be skeptical might easily have let out a "squee!" and jumped at the offer.

The point is, this is just one of the hedgerows we must leap in the publishing process. Ain't capitalism grand?

Anonymous said...

Better than the alternative...

"Comrade, your submission is splendidly written! You can go back now to the uranium mine proudly knowing that this work of yours has furthered the cause of the revolution!"

Or they don't like it and shoot you for being counter-revolutionary.

Either way I'll take me a helping of capitalism thanks.