Copyright Facts Every Author Should Know

While it’s generally known that authors own copyrights of their works once they put pen to paper, in this digital age, stealing someone’s work is easier than it has ever been. Authors may find it in their best interests to get their work copyrighted, or at the least, to learn the facts about copyright.

Do authors need to copyright their books? Most authors know they own the rights to their works from the minute they put pen to paper. That said, many authors will mail themselves their manuscripts to get them stamped by the post office so they have historical proof of having written the work. This process is often known as “the poor man’s copyright” but according to the U.S. Copyright Office, there is no stipulation in the law to make this legal.

In the old days, it may have also been easier for authors to prove they owned the rights to their works since they could probably produce their handwritten manuscripts, but today, with computers and the Internet, it may not be so easy to prove you own the copyright on your work since there is nothing unique about digital or computer files to show they are yours. In fact, if you typed your book in a Word document, who’s to say that same Word document on someone else’s computer couldn’t have belonged to that person first? While you may email your manuscript in Word form to a friend to read, and chances are your friend won’t publish it under his name, or it won’t mysteriously be taken from your email by some computer hacker, it may be best to play it safe.

Of course, authors are busy writing and getting their books printed or trying to find publishers so getting a copyright might seem like a hassle or at least like taking out insurance to protect your work from being stolen, something almost unlikely to happen. That said, getting a copyright is neither difficult nor expensive.

When do you apply for a copyright? You need to have a completed work, but a manuscript can be pre-registered (prior to publication), and then later, you can upload your completed book to the U.S. Copyright Office’s website or mail a paper copy of the book. Many authors are afraid when they mail out manuscripts to publishers that they will have their work stolen. If you are really concerned about that, you can get the manuscript pre-registered, but it is standard for most authors simply to type “copyright 2010” or whatever year on the submission page of the manuscript along with their contact information, thereby informing the publisher the author is aware of his rights to his own work. And no reputable publisher is going to try to steal an author’s book anyway. In fact, often your publisher will register the copyright for you if you are traditionally published.

If you self-publish, you can register with the U.S. Copyright Office yourself. Currently the cost is $35.00, not a whole lot more than printing and mailing a manuscript to yourself, and you can always count it as a business expense. If you don’t want to go through the trouble and you have been published by a subsidy or POD publisher, that publisher will usually register the copyright for a fee ranging from $99.00 and up because of the time it takes to register—about an hour, but remember they do it all the time. It might take you a little longer to do, but only you can determine how much your time is worth.

If you register the copyright yourself, it is fairly easy. Everything you need is at The site is very user-friendly with Frequently Asked Questions, forms, and step-by-step instructions. You have the option either of mailing in your work to obtain your copyright, or you can use the website’s e-copyright process, which is easy, but because digital files take time to upload and several steps are involved, it can be time-consuming. When you have finished, you’ll receive a receipt for payment and a separate one for uploading. You’ll want to keep a copies on your computer and hard copies as well (see why below).

Each book is assigned a case number, which allows authors to check the status of their applications online. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, due to the tremendous backlog of applications, processing can take as long as nine months. Once the Copyright Office completes filing the registration, a certificate of your copyright will be issued to you.

Once you have sent your application in, you’ll want to check periodically to make sure everything is active in your file. Because computers and people both make mistakes, it is possible your application will get lost somewhere along the way, so that’s why you want to keep your receipts. After all, you don’t want to wait three or six or nine months, only to find out you have to start all over again.

Finally, one reason most authors may not think about as a reason to get their books copyrighted is to be prepared to sell a book’s film rights. After all, don’t we all wish Hollywood will come knocking? Recently, Claudia Newcorn, author of the fantasy novel “Crossover” has had the book optioned for screen rights. She told me, “If you enter negotiations on the book, for example with somebody for a movie, they are going to request your copyright number to signify to them that your book is registered, and it proves to the interested party that you do indeed own said manuscript/book, and are allowed to negotiate terms for it.” The same would be true not only for screen rights, but any other merchandising negotiations.

In short, the wait for a copyright may seem long, but the application process is not. Considering the hundreds of hours you may have spent writing your book, and the loss in revenue if it is stolen, plus the legal fees you will spend without guarantee of winning your case, the benefits of having your book copyrighted far outweigh the small cost of time and money to protect your book.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


  1. says

    On the point of computer files. Every file comes with a creation date. And every time you save it, there is a log of it having been saved. So as soon as you create that file, you have the proof there that you started it on that date, and that is unique to you. Someone else copying that file onto their computer will have a seperate date embedded in the file. I’ve got several files on my computer now with several books in them, and each of them are different. When I put them on my husband’s comptuer, they’re different again. And with MS Word these days (it’s the only one I use, so I don’t know about others) you can set it up so that it shows which/whose computer created the file as well. Which all helps with the copyright issue.

  2. says

    If there is litigation, the court will look at all of the facts. The more evidence you have that you are the creator of a work, the better. Keeping drafts of your writing can help prove authorship, as it shows the development of the work. The file dates may be a factor, but dates on computer files are easily faked. All you have to do is change the system date.