Someone recently asked if I suggested he register his work with the U.S. Copyright Office before submitting it to publishers. He had received a lot of suggestions against doing so because it wasn't necessary. Publishers aren't going to steal anyone's work. But, actually, there are even more reasons for not registering your work before submitting it for publication--or ever. Surprised? Here's what I told him.
* * *
Let me respond here less to the obvious and more to the down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty, practical issues of non-registration. I suggest you pass on registering your manuscript before sending it out to publishers for several reasons.
- Your manuscript is copyright-protected from the moment of its creation in a "fixed … tangible medium of expression," according to the U.S. Copyright Office.
- If someone appropriates and infringes upon your work, you can issue a demand letter for the violator to remove that work from all public spaces, including Websites, magazines, newspapers, books, billboards, television ads, stores, and so forth.
- If a violator fails to respond to your demand letter, you can sue for actual and punitive damages in Federal Court, but only after registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. The distinction boils down to this: You don't need to register to prove ownership of your creative property; you do need to register to take a violator to court for actual and punitive damages.
- Understand that you probably won't walk away with a big paycheck even if you register your work and sue successfully. Except in egregious cases involving infringement by multi-million-dollar corporations, you won't likely have significant financial damages.
- Registering your work won't do much good if someone from a foreign country infringes upon your copyright, since each country's copyright laws are different, and some countries place a very low priority on foreign copyright claims.
- Also, copyright infringement suits are no slam-dunk. Defendants often claim that a copyright is invalid because the work is in the public domain and free to use. Or they claim that their appropriation of your material is considered "fair use," another common defense. The result could mean a protracted and costly court battle over such factual and legal distinctions.
- Even if you register your work and prevail in an infringement action, there's no guaranty that the defendant will have the finances to pay a huge monetary award. Before throwing good money after bad, at least research the defendants to see that they have assets worth pursuing.
- Registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office costs time and money. Not a lot, in the eyes of many people; but the process is not free. And the time and money can accrue quickly if you're a productive writer with numerous properties ready to embark upon their world debut.
- Registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office won't prevent a legitimate editor at a conventional publishing house from stealing your book and claiming it as his own because such a thing is virtually unheard of. The chances of that happening are about the same as getting struck by lightning. Twice. And living! The disadvantages of an editor stealing someone else's work far outweigh the advantages, and all editors know it. That reduces the likelihood of an editor committing intellectual property theft to near zero.
- Registering your copyright most likely means you're going to want to stick a little copyright symbol on your manuscript to warn the uninitiated (if there are any) away. That's a dead giveaway that you're an amateur scribe who doesn't know anything about the business of writing/publishing and probably never will. That's "strike one" against you in an inning where the number of pitches it takes for you to strike out is strictly limited.
- Registering your copyright tells an acquisitions editor (or it can, anyway) that you suspect he or she is a person of few scruples who is willing to risk them by theft. That may well stick in the craw of some editors.
In short, why rock the boat or stack the deck against you in return for gaining virtually nothing you hadn't already owned? See where I'm going with this?
If the goal is to find a publisher for your "baby" and get your book into print, don't bias editors against you before your little tyke gets a chance to say its first Goo-goo.
Now, if you're primarily writing online and posting your work on the Web before shopping it around to publishers (not a good idea either, but it's been done), you might consider making sure the site publishing your work is copyright protected and that your work is registered. There's a far greater chance of online theft than material sent to a conventional publisher.
In the rare event that you do find your work has been illegally compromised or even appropriated and you stand to lose big bucks by the infringement, you can always file a notice of complaint with the violators, register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, and hire some hot-shot attorney to sue the pants off them.
And, hopefully, win.
* * *
D. J. Herda is author of the new eBook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.