An American Editor

November 19, 2018

Literary Theft — Fact or Fiction?

Filed under: Contributor Article,Editorial Matters,Thinking Fiction — americaneditor @ 1:14 pm

Carolyn Haley

A common concern among new authors is that someone will steal their work. I encounter this worry in different arenas, from early contact with individuals about editing their manuscripts to collective expression in writers’ forums about the greed and untrustworthiness of the publishing industry as a whole.

The central concerns seem to be about copyright and piracy. These reflect, on one hand, a valid worry about vulnerability in the electronic age. It’s so easy now for anyone to copy and distribute anything!

On the other hand, the worry is needless, because creative works are protected better than most people think, and theft is usually driven by mercenary interest. Where’s the dollar value in an unknown, unpublished author’s first novel?

Thieves want something that will make them easy money. A good idea might have potential profit, but ideas themselves are not copyrightable, and passing off material as one’s own when it’s not can be tracked, and consequences imposed. Smart thieves don’t want to risk that, and stupid ones are easily caught.

Copyright basics

According to the United States government, for American authors, “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”

In simpler terms, this means that the minute you write a story, it is protected by copyright. The key phrase is “fixed in a tangible form.” Ideas, as mentioned above, cannot be copyrighted. Same is true for titles. Copyright applies to individual expression of ideas, which means your book versus anyone else’s.

Everything you need to know about copyright law is covered on the U.S. copyright website. The concise version appears on their Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page:

https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what

As that site specifies, you do not have to register your copyright to have it. The extra step of registration is for security; or, as explained by literary agent Janet Reid, “Copyright does not prevent theft, any more than car insurance prevents accidents. Copyright registration allows you to sue if someone does plagiarize your work.”

She elaborates on why registering copyright before acquiring an agent can be problematic. Details are in the full blog article at:

http://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/2018/10/so-why-you-do-not-register-copyright.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FLZQZA+%28Janet+Reid%2C+Literary+Agent%29

Indie authors who self-publish just need to declare their copyright in the front matter of their book (e.g., Copyright © 2018 by Carolyn Haley. All rights reserved.).

That’s all you need.

More can be added, about rights and publishing information. See here for an explanation, by Joel Friendlander at the Book Designer:

https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2010/01/copyright-page-samples-you-can-copy-and-paste-into-your-book/

Paying for copyright registration is a formality to embrace if you are acting as a publishing business, as well as to cover yourself for unknown problems that could occur in the future, but it isn’t required.

Who cares?

The person least likely to plagiarize an author’s work is their editor. There’s nothing for an editor to gain from stealing a client’s material. Sure, some editors are also writers, but as I once told a prospective client, “I’m a lot more interested in writing my book than yours.” A bit harsh, perhaps, but that relieved the author’s fears — and I received his deposit the next day.

Stealing a client’s material — and being caught at it — is about the worst thing that could happen to an editor’s career. Given the traceability of passing materials around electronically, I can’t imagine how I would hide the fact that I’d come into possession of an author’s work. Nor do I want to waste the time trying. I (and my peers) have better things to do.

Perhaps if I were indiscreet and shared some content from a client manuscript with a friend, or posted it undisguised in an editors’ forum, that text might get further passed around, and grabbed and used by an unknown party, creating a situation of plagiarism or piracy. That would be an error of stupid carelessness, not evil intent, but it would still have negative consequences.

Neither I nor all other publishing professionals I know would dream of shooting ourselves in the foot that way. This applies to both independent editors and staff editors at publishing houses, along with literary agents. That means an author can be reasonably assured that sending a manuscript to a publishing professional isn’t going to harm them.

Piracy

The greater risk of having your work stolen comes through sharing it on social media, or at online group feedback sites. In the “cloud,” anyone can copy material and do what they want with it. Some authors who don’t have the support of beta readers or writers’ groups use online sites for needed feedback. If they’re seriously worried about piracy and plagiarism, however, they are better off finding beta readers in their direct, physical world, or even just going it solo, which limits access to their work and thus reduces or eliminates the risk of having it swiped.

Stolen work is not necessarily a catastrophe. While yes, it’s offensive and infuriating, it also can be transformed into opportunity. Some authors recognize that having their material pirated gives them an advantage akin to self-promoting through giveaways.

Best-selling author Neil Gaiman discusses this in an interview. He acknowledges that pirated material was actually helping his sales! Many sales, he realized, are generated by word of mouth, or by people lending copies of a book to friends. During such exchanges, no sale is actually lost. Rather, sales are gained because greater exposure motivates readers to acquire more of an author’s work.

See Neil’s rationale and experience at:

https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/neil-gaiman-radio-drama-online-piracy-social-media

Nevertheless, finding your text on somebody else’s site is a disturbing, angering experience that you have to respond to. Author Joanna Penn addresses this and offers practical solutions in her blog article “3 Reasons Why Author’s Shouldn’t Worry About Piracy But How to Protect Yourself Anyway” at:

https://jerryjenkins.com/3-reasons-authors-shouldnt-worry-piracy-protect-anyway/

The simple response to concern about having your material stolen is, Don’t sweat it. The chances of it happening are slim; if it does occur, you have recourse. Very few authors have to go to court to challenge their ownership of their creative work. Those who do are usually best-sellers. If you’re not there yet, you needn’t lose sleep over the possibility. Just write your book and follow established paths toward getting it to your audience. The publishing industry is on your side, and is no more interested in fielding a lawsuit than you are.

Approaching publishing with your eyes open, acting prudently, and trusting professionals to help both avoid and respond to any piracy or plagiarism are the most reliable acts authors can perform to securely control their rights to their work.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

4 Comments

  1. You don’t have to register copyright unless you want to collect damages if someone infringes your copyright. You can’t collect damages if your copyright isn’t registered.

    Like

    Comment by Pat McNees — November 19, 2018 @ 1:39 pm

  2. The corollary of “I’m a lot more interested in writing my book than yours.” is that authors who are the most afraid of copyright theft are probably also the least experienced and therefore the least vulnerable.

    Like

    Comment by Jim — November 19, 2018 @ 6:44 pm


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