“How do I protect my work?” is a question that comes up at every conference and the writers groups where I speak. Having one’s manuscript stolen seems to be a huge concern among new writers. Many would-be authors, upon having an editor or agent ask for a manuscript to be sent to them, go into spasms of anxiety that their 100,000 hard-won words will be swiped and sold to a publisher under someone else’s name.
Your work will not be stolen. Honest. When have you ever heard of a reported instance that this actually happened?
If you are submitting a wonderful manuscript, full of sales potential, editors and agents are going to want to make money by getting it published. Believe me, it would dreadfully complicate their business model to go to the trouble of stealing your work and pretending someone else wrote it, than to just publish your work in the first place.
If your book isn’t so wonderful, well, that’s a different problem than worrying someone will steal it.
You’ll want to submit to reputable publishing houses and literary agencies, of course. Even the disreputable ones are not likely to steal your work, but they may inudate you with offers for “self-publishing” packages or writing contests. Preditors and Editors is an excellent online resource to check up on the reputation of agents and publishers.
No matter how uniquely you’ve told your story, there are only so many truly original ideas in the world, and it IS possible that another author has written a similar story. This is a literary coincidence, not story-swiping.
The second question I’m asked is “Should I register the copyright?” and the answer is no. Registration provides no additional copyright protection. It does give you legal standing to sue for infringement, but this isn’t something you need to worry about at the submission stage. Someday, when you’ve got a publishing deal, your publisher will register the copyright for you.
In the United States, copyright is a form of legal protection granted to authors of ‘original works’ and this includes both published and unpublished works. Your copyright protection exists from the time you create it (unless you created it for an employer, which is called “work for hire”). A common misperception among authors is that they should register their work with the U.S. Copyright Office, or have it “published” in some form to protect it.
“No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright.” according to the US Copyright Office. Putting a copyright notice or the (c) symbol all over your manuscript, or proudly declaring it has been registered in your query letter, is the best way to announce your inexperience at the publishing game. It just looks amateurish. If it makes you feel reassured, go ahead and add “Copyright 2009 + your name” at the bottom of your work, but make it very subtle.
The United States Copyright Office has an excellent website for further information.