How I Protect My Copyright

Ben continues his short series on addressing copyright issues.

Category: writing

label_outline tag Legaltag Copyright

Last week I offered my perspective on when you should copyright your work. After being asked several times how I protect my pre-publication works, I thought I’d offer my approach for your consideration. I defend my works by demonstrating an evolving work.

Disclaimer! Only licensed attorneys are allowed to give legal advice. I have a law degree, but I am not a licensed attorney. I am only telling you my perception on copyright. I encourage you to contact an intellectual property attorney for proper legal advice. If anybody gives you legal advice who is not your attorney...check with an attorney.

Any lawsuit will involve a lot of “he said, she said.” You both have identical copies of a finished work, so how does one establish origination? Advice is usually given to seal a copy and send it to yourself. This is called a “poor man’s copyright,” and I’ve heard of ways of undermining the credibility of such a copyright. Postmarks can be forged. Emails can be back-dated. It’s way too easy for fraud to work against you. More importantly, how do you know (or your lawyer) know that what you have in that envelop is what you claim it is? If you open it prematurely then the alleged “value” of mailing it is lost.

Which stage of the project are you in? Draft? First revision? Proof? Are you prepared to do this at every step? As you’ll see in a couple paragraphs, I mention a variant on this that I’ve read seems to have held up against legal scrutiny.

Your Options

Register. The best way is to register the copyright. This should only be done for finished works, and would involve sending two copies to the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, their policy is to destroy those books after validating ownership–so don’t think that you can later cruise to the Library and pull a copy off the shelf. Regardless, the registration is legal proof of copyright. You see above that some publishers (or agents) will not take a registered work.

Demonstrate an Evolving Work. This approach occurred to me while watching the SCO v. IBM lawsuit. In that case, SCO claimed Linux was a derivation of their Unix. They accused Linus Torvalds of plagiarism. In response, Torvalds was able to show version history going back to the very first release of Linux. He can demonstrate not only how the kernel evolved, but how he got better with time—he made some bad coding errors in the beginning. This would not have been possible to prove if the work were plagiarized. A plagiarist has insufficient evidence of creation.

Demonstrating Evolution

I’m a plotter, but this process should work for pantsers, too. In a nutshell, maintain a file of everything you did to create your work, from as early in the process as possible. This builds a body of evidence that shows you had an idea and put your own sweat-equity into it. Ancient views of property were just that: take something raw (un-developed land, or an idea), and mix your own effort into it (build a building, or write a book) to make it yours.

Pre-Production. During the pre-production stage, you will likely generate notes on plot, characters, and key scenes. I’m still evolving this process but use a mix of paper and electronic media.

Production. During the drafting process, keep regular copies (daily, weekly, etc.). I use Scrivener and Dropbox. Scrivener creates timestamped backups and can deposit directly to Dropbox. I purchased Dropbox which keeps perpetual backups, so all changes to a file should be available. I track revisions in Scrivener during edits, also using the timestamped backups. I use Lulu Press to print my edit-drafts. This allows me to have a date-stamped hard copy that I can make bleed with my red pen.

I also compile my manuscript into a PDF during drafting every few days. That PDF is also kept in the repository; showing with a single document the progressive evolution of my work.

Publication. If you have a publisher, then by this point they are registering the work. If you are self-publishing, then keeping a date-stamp on the work as you did with your edit copies adds another link in the chain establishing your effort. You may chose to register at this point. Or, you may defer registering until your work starts selling enough that you find the registration a valuable defense from infringement.

Throughout the process, I keep a journal using Moleskine. I started journaling quite some time ago mostly to keep my facts straight over time. I don’t keep a journal for litigation purposes. However, keeping a journal separate to the actual work may lend credibility to your evolving work. As a writer, journalling is also a good way of keeping the creative juices flowing.

Another way, and the one that helps authors who share their work during the drafting process, is to keep all your notes. You see, a person who pounds out fifty to one-hundred thousand words is going to have notes. Notes on characters, notes on settings, maybe a plot outline, if you’re a plotter. You’re going to have original drafts of each scene. During the revision process, you’re going to have copies of your earlier manuscripts oozing red-pen. You keep all that information in a cardboard box or an accordion file. Date the various copies, if you like. Keep a private Journal (perhaps using Moleskine?) about your progress and frustrations—dated. Even blog articles and tweets could help build evidence. Somebody who attempts to plagiarize your work won’t have those notes.

By keeping all your notes and drafts, you show the progressive evolution of your work.

So, consult an attorney to get the real story on protecting your copyright. I follow the approach of “demonstrated evolving work.” I can’t say with legal competence that it will always work, but I’m comfortable with it at this stage in my writing career.

How do you protect your copyright?

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Photo Credit: Gavel and Keyboard (sergign/Shutterstock UNK.)