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A copyright isn’t something most authors think about until they’re very close to self-publishing. It’s an afterthought that can create a lot of frustration and confusion because it often comes at a time when emotions are high. Until this point, all of your effort has gone into writing the book and navigating the publishing pathways, so it can feel like your to-do list keeps growing instead of shrinking. However, we’re here to help make it as easy as possible.

What’s a copyright?

Copyright — meaning the right to copy your work — must be given to others who wish to copy it, whether it’s using your ideas and calling it their own, or a bookstore buying one copy of your book and then making copies to sell. They legally can’t do this unless you sell them the rights.

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What’s NOT Protected by Copyright Law?

  • Book titles, song titles, names, short phrases. Nope, you can’t copyright your book title.
  • Real-world events. If you write historical fiction, for example, you can’t copyright the real-world events used in your book. Any writer is free to write about them. 
  • Ideas, themes, and plot lines. This one can be confusing. We writers love our ideas! But unfortunately they’re not protected under copyright law. What copyright protects is the execution and expression of the idea into a story, drama, movie, painting, or piece of music—not the idea itself.
  • Book characters, such as yourself in a memoir, or the protagonist of your novel, are not considered original. The same goes for generic settings, such as outer space or the underworld. 
  • Filing in the U.S. may protect your work in several other countries, but not all 
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So, do you even need one?

Your work is protected by intellectual property law as soon as it’s written or saved (in every draft and edition) so it’s not absolutely necessary to register your copyright, which is what people mean when they say “copyright your book”. Registration establishes a public, searchable record of your work and is required before an infringement suit may be filed. Prompt registration (within three months following publication) increases the damages you might recover in an infringement action. 

Note: traditional publishers always do this for you. When self-publishing, you’ll want to do it yourself. 

In short, it’s recommended to register your copyright in case you run into any infringement issues in the future. It’s cheap and relatively easy to do so. It costs $35 to register your copyright at copyright.gov. 

How to register:

  • Go to the copyright.gov portal.
  • Click on “Literary Works,” then “Register A Literary Work.”
  • Take a minute to create an account with the U.S. Copyright Office if you didn’t do so already.
  • Go to “Copyright Registration” on the left side of your screen and click on “Register A New Claim.”
  • Click “Start Registration.”
  • Complete the form.
  • Pay the U.S. Copyright Office. The standard fee for online registration is $65.
  • Send in the “best edition” of your manuscript to the U.S. Copyright Office
  • Wait for approval 

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