Writing Tips: Copyright

Our Quick Guide to copyright  


Can I protect my ideas?

No. There is no legal mechanism to do this. It can't be done.

Then what stops someone stealing my idea?

Nothing - except that:

•  Literary agents & publishers can be trusted not to do this, and
•  Ideas have almost no value anyway

Many first-timers just don't believe that second bullet point, but they ought to. Agents receive hundreds of manuscripts every month. There may be plenty of good ideas in that lot, but the execution is almost always lacking. It's not the idea that counts, it's how you develop it.

OK, how do I protect my words?

You honestly, truly, genuinely don't need to do anything at all. This page has been written by one professional author and reviewed by a number of others. Not one of us has taken any special steps to protect copyright.

As a rough guide, the more concerned a writer is about copyright protection, the less likely it is that the manuscript in question is of any value.

But if you're still concerned - or if you're a US or Canadian author, where the rules and practices are slightly different - then just consult the table below for guidance.


Are you?

If so:-

Normal

You don't need to do anything at all. Relax.

Suspicious

Print off your work and mail it to yourself, recorded delivery. Do not open the packet when it arrives and just leave it in a desk drawer. That unopened envelope can act as proof in court that you wrote the manuscript by a certain date.

Paranoid

Not happy with the postal solution? Then go to the Writers' Guild of America site and register your work with them online. That'll cost you a few bucks, but it'll give you the kind of security that every true paranoiac dreams of.

American

In the US, film studios and NY-based publishers are much more closely connected than they are elsewhere. In the film world, copyright protection is more of an issue than it is in the world of books. Many North American authors still do nothing to protect their work - and that's fine - but if you do want to take extra measures to protect your work, then you should go ahead and do just that. The WGA solution above works just fine. If you are writing a film script, then it is essential to register it with the WGA before sending it to agents.

Do I need copyright permission to quote other people's words?

You need to obtain copyright permission to quote anything written by an author, unless that author has been dead for 70 years or more.

If you are quoting love letters from an old flame, texts from your stalker, or death threats from your local hitman, then you do need to obtain copyright permission. Where (i) that permission may be hard to obtain, and (ii) the relevant material is crucial to your work, then an agent or publisher may want to see that you have the necessary permissions before they take your work seriously. It makes no difference if you have altered names and other personal details. If you're using someone else's words, then you need to get permission. Period.

Where you are quoting published work (or where any material you do quote is not central to your work), then you can be more relaxed about obtaining permissions before sending work off to agents. When and if you get a book deal, there'll be plenty of time to obtain the required permissions. You'll also find copyright owners are more responsive, when they know that the author asking for permission actually has a book deal. Most permissions are free. If you're quoting work by well-known poets you may end up paying £50 or so for the privilege.