How To Protect Your Intellectual Property As A Writer

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So you’ve finally given in and are working on the piece of writing you’ve been contemplating for years – a novel, a play, a screenplay, or maybe a collection of essays or short stories. Whatever that masterpiece is, you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into its development.

So now that you’ve got a beautiful finished product, how do you ensure that your work is protected? After all, the last thing you want is for someone else to steal or profit off your writing.

Let’s take a step back from a moment. You may not have been thinking of this issue at all. And in fact, and may only be primarily relevant when you’re ready to circulate your work. What do I mean by circulate? Post online, self-publish, share at a writers group or to a critique partner, or submit to agents, publishers, and other outlets. When you’ve reached that step, it’s important to make sure that you have protected your work.

The goal here isn’t to make you paranoid. If you visit one writers group, you’re likely to meet someone who refuses to submit their project because they are certain that the recipient will recognize its brilliance, steal it, publish it, and make their millions. The chances of this happening are essentially nil, for a whole host of reasons. But that being said, it’s also important to make sure that the provenance of a piece is clear: who wrote it, who owns it, and what rights, if any, have been granted.

Copyrighting your work as a writer is similar to patenting your new device as an inventor, in that it protects your writing from copycats and indicates that your work is original. Once you’ve copyrighted a written work, you then have the sole rights as the author to profit from it. No one can publish it, sell it, or use it without your consent.

So how can you determine whether your work qualifies for copyrighting?

There are a couple of different criteria for designating something as an original work, according to the UK Intellectual Property Office. The finished product must be the result of an independent creative effort – the writing has to be original. It can’t qualify if you’ve copied in whole or part from an existing source. However, if it is similar to something that already exists, it may still qualify as original as long as it hasn’t been taken from that source directly or indirectly.

Luckily, once you’ve determined that your work is original, the copyrighting process is very simple. The process of copyrighting in the UK is automatic: there are no forms to fill out, no fees to pay, and no process to go through. Basically, if you have written something that qualifies for copyright, you don’t even have to formally register it in most places around the world because copyright is automatic for original work. You can simply mark the work with the copyright symbol, and add your name and the year next to it.

It may also be advisable to mail yourself a copy of the work by special delivery post, so you have an unopened, dated envelope containing your original writing. Don’t open the envelope once you receive it. However, if there was ever a copyright dispute, you’ve essentially made the postal service witness to the originality and timing of the document.

Copyright law also applies to artistic works, images, audio productions, video productions, and more. The term of copyright extends for the duration of the author’s life, plus an additional 70 years. Unless a request is made to extend that copyright, it subsequently expires and the product enters into the public domain.

It’s also helpful to know that copyright doesn’t protect an idea: it simply protects the work itself. So for example, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series is copyrighted material. But this doesn’t prevent others from attempting to publish a series about a young wizard going to school. It’s not the creative concept that’s protected – it’s the actual work itself.

If you own the copyright on a document, you are able to transfer it or sell it. This allows you to monetize your work. If you want to further explore the issue of copyrighting your writing or have questions specific to your case, visit:  http://www.uspto.gov/

About the author: Samuel Clemens has been writing about writing and education for over a decade. You can also find him reviewing educational products for companies like Gradesaver.

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