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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Why Not to Register Copyright for Unpublished Work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If you have an unpublished manuscript that you're shopping to agents and/or publishers, or considering self-publishing, there's no need to register your copyright prior to publication.


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Why else might you want to avoid registering copyright for unpublished work?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.


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:

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:

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.

GT Tg said...

If you have a manuscript that you intend to publish, copyright your manuscript. It's that simple. It's affordable and just makes sense. I have had working papers and manuscripts stolen. At some point, if you write a lot and assuming you are good, someone is going to steal your work. It's pointless, in my opinion, to go after every person for every piece. However for the piece that counts (the one that can change your life), it's just not good business sense to skip out on a $100 - $150 feel for something that can generate you hundreds of thousands if not more.

Victoria Strauss said...

Your manuscript is copyrighted from the moment you write the words. It's really not necessary to register copyright unless and until the ms. will be published. Also, registration with the US Copyright Office costs just $35 if you do it online--if you're paying $100-$150 for copyright registration, you're being ripped off.

GT Tg said...

Thanks so much for your feedback.

I just have a different perspective from you based on my experiences; I had a working manuscript stolen and it's hard to prove in court - that's my experience. There is no science to this; it's a perspective based on experience. With that written, my estimates were within a range based on submitting multiple works. I am not being ripped-off -- not new to the rodeo.

The Bosses Daughter said...

As a person that has also had a large amount of intellectual property stolen, the words "the manuscript is copy written from the moment you write the words" have not done a single thing to ease my distress in finding others profiting from my life's work. I urge everyone to spend the money to protect their work.

Anonymous said...

I have come across a bad publisher. ShieldCrest of Aylesbury. They want me to pay for the errors caused in their wrong reformatting.They admitted then retracted it. They term me vindictive. Have sent emails in red staing that they will publish all of my books with all of the errors as they want me to pay for the amendments. The cover is not complete, being termed black characters on blue and white blobs as the white was left in to break up the monotonous blue. Now the blue is also purple but still with white blobs. They tried to charge me for a bespoke cover which I designed. I have not sorted out all of the amendments. They have omitted, deleted, changed text and moved chapters without consultation. Their emails are rude and threatening and they threatened after me making a query, that they would 'publish my book with all of the errors in it so that it would not sit on the shelf with professionally published books.' Now they are doing just that. They terminated the contract on 14 June 2016 but still keep emailing me for money. They do not recognise the terminated contract which they wrote. I wrote a negative review becuse they would not take my concerns seriously and they refused to move forward with my book until I took down the review-Breach of Contract- I have now told them that as I have copyright, I withdrew my copyright 05 July 2016 to stop them publishing my book with all of the errors in it. Their own blog page-Steve Robson at ShieldCrest states that self publishers rip off clients and it is full of grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. So much for someone that claims to be the No1 Publisher. I have now found other bad blogs about thyem on the net. Wish that I had seen them before I paid in full in advance for my book.Any advice would be gratefully appreciated. be gratefully received.

Caz Fisher said...

ShieldCrest are still dragging this out and have offered a refund for the 12 books going to e.g. The Bodleian Library Oxford etc. and the PDF with a note 'If I can find someone, to get my book published elsewhere.' Some £125 which apparently they consider fair. This is a copout! There are only five official places to register my book not twelve. Others named e.g. Waterstones and Smiths have informed me that they do not take self published books. Also, they are still asking to publish my book on one hand and threatening to publish it with all of its errors on the other. Confused? I am. I am taking them to court. All comments gratefully appreciated. Cheers Victoria for taking the time to puiblish this.

Carol Fisher

Anonymous said...

The copyright office don't protect unpublished work, I thought they did, they allow for others to pay to view your work. Disgusting.

Anonymous said...

There are bad publishing companies out there too. Rx publishing stole my work.

Andrew Mitchell said...

GTTG i agree with you 100%, im really raking my brain to figure out why people keep suggesting not to copyright their manuscript, yes once you write it its technically copywriten but it doesnt guarantee it will hold up in court. Its $35. EVERY book you read the first page is a copyright and a threat. It makes me wonder the motivation behind people suggesting not to copyright their work.

Victoria Strauss said...

At the risk of repeating myself...

By law in most countries of the world, your work is copyright to you from the moment you write down the words. Not theoretically. Not technically. By law.

Registering copyright--which is not even possible in most countries, since only the USA makes registration a pre-requisite to legal action--provides additional legal rights but does not increase or improve copyright protection.

At the unpublished stage, infringement is rare. Again: infringement is EXTREMELY UNLIKELY for work that has not been published. It only becomes a concern once work is published, and exposed to a wide audience. I don't expect to convince anyone who doesn't already believe this--even so, it's true.

Given the international scope of publishing today--which makes it likely that your work will appear in the USA even if you publish from another country--it is a good idea to register US copyright. But only on publication. There is no need to register copyright for unpublished work.

Etrigan said...

Seems like you're one of those stubborn people who will never admit they're wrong due to pride.

Any work that has been viewed by someone else can be stolen- whether published or not. If you email your cousin a copy of your short story, or put it on your blog before publication, it can be stolen. This is obvious.

Having a legal record of ownership allows you to take action. Otherwise it's just your word against the plagiarizer's.

Victoria Strauss said...


I won't admit I'm wrong because I'm not wrong.

Theft. Of. Unpublished. Work. Is. Extremely. Unlikely. Even if the work is good enough to be worth stealing. Also, if you put it on your blog, it's no longer unpublished.

Registration proves ownership, but so does keeping drafts and notes. And drafts and notes are free.

Kindra Pring said...

That $35 registration fee just allows you to, if someone does steal you work, pay thousands of dollars more in court to maybe defend against potential theft which if you never published that million dollar idea, you're not going to be able to afford anyway. So there truly is little point to registering something unpublished. I don't understand all the people insisting on a right to be paranoid but then toting overpriced numbers and far-fetched anecdotes, where that copyright probably would not have helped anyway.

zaphod said...

Unpublished means no one else has seen it. if you've let someone else see it, it's no longer unpublished, and you damn well better have registered it first.

With this in mind, unpublished works are rarely stolen, because no one else has seen them.

Ed Hughes said...

Searching online for possible solution for my situation lead me to this blog and thought I'd post my question here.

In the last 3 years I've been building a website at the same time writing articles (bolg posts) that go with the website. They were all original creative content and none of them were / are published. I've not registered copyright for any of the articles because I had to continually go back to them to edit them as I futher developed my website over time. I saved all articles on a flashdrive.

In April this year (2018), I was in a well-known Southern California unversity campus working on my articles on my laptop. A young student suddenly came to me looking distressed saying she was waiting for her friends there but didn't see them and her cellphone battery was totally out. She asked to plug her cellphone to my laptop to recharge her cellphone. She looking seriously distressed about this, I felt symphathetic to her so I let her. Some time after she plugged her cell into my laptop, I realized the flashdrive in which all my articles were saved were still plugged in the USB drive. Since I couldn't see what she was really doing on her cellphone, I immediately felt uncomfortable and unplugged the flashdrive. I also have lots of articles and website-related materails saved on the harddrive of that laptop.

Little did I expect at that monent this unexpected incident ended up haunting me for the following 6 months since. Did she steal my content on my flashdrive? my hard drive? Was she an onest person? Could she be such a villain that she not only stole my intellectual property but even registered copyright for herself or a thrid person?

I'm now very close to publishing my website, and these articles, which will aslo be published as eBooks. This is my very first website and eBook. As a newbie with no previous track record, after publishing my content, I'm concerned should she indeed be a villain and steal / fradulently copyright my works and sued me (especially if my website / eBook become successful, thus famous), my reputation will go down the drain and my future will be ruined.

So is there anything I can do now to protect myself? Or is it really too late?

I know I may sound paranoid to some but a website is a small business that involves liability and i have to prepare for the worst. If the answer is the "death penalty", which means I'd have to give up on those articles, then at least I know I may have to start to re-write those articles, which also means re-design my webiste entirely, which will take months - if even possible.

Any feedback will be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Victoria Strauss said...

Ed Hughes,

Many authors are intensely fearful of intellectual property theft, but especially at the pre-publication stage, it really is incredibly rare. In the situation that you cite, the student didn't know you or anything about what you were working on, and it seems pretty unlikely that she would target you for theft. There's also the fact that you can't transmit data via a smartphone charger.

I don't think you need to worry about this at all.

Ed Hughes said...

Hi Victoria,

I felt so silly after you pointed out the fact that we can't transfer data from a pc to a smartphone. I did a quick search on Google and found it was actually possible to do that but it would require some effort from the pc itself. And obviously I did not make any effort to do that, so that means I am probably safe. I guess I'm realy getting old lol...

So I'll be a happy writer again :)

Happy November !

Victoria Strauss said...

It's not that data can't be transferred between a computer and a smartphone. It's that you can't do it via a smartphone charger cable. But I'm glad you're feeling less vulnerable.

Ed Hughes said...

Understood :)

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