2.17.2006

The Truth About Copyright

I started my MS in 2002, finished it this year. Should the copyright date on the title page be 2002 or 2006? I'd always thought 2002 -- but if I sent it to agents with a 2002 copyright date, does this make it look like the MS has been doing the rounds for four years?

Ok, think about this: Joe Schmoe writes a book, his agent sells it (hooray!) and Shmandom House will publish it in Fall 2007. He finished it and handed it in to his editor in April, 2006. What will the Copyright page of his finished book say?

The answer is 2007. The copyright date reflects the year the book was published.

And please note: You do not need to write "Copyright 200X" on your manuscript. It's not really legally binding, as far as I know, and I doesn't matter to me one way or the other what year you wrote it. And frankly, if you send it to one of those evil, lecherous agents who poaches ideas from their slush piles, (who I think is right back there with the guy who'll cut your Achilles tendon in the parking lot from under your car, and people who go wading through trash to hunt up your old credit card junk mail) your idea will be long gone and "exploited" before you might find out, leaving your "copyright" pretty useless after the fact. Keep an eye on your manuscript, protect your work, but don't stress over the copyright.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me how many people think they need to include a copyright on their work when submitting mss.

Adrian said...

Actually, the copyright year should be the year that the work is fixed in a tangible medium, according to copyright law. It has nothing to do with publication.

If you write your first draft in 2002, then the copyright year for that draft is 2002. You then may exercise one of your copyrights: the right to make a derivative work by reworking it into a second draft in 2003. That draft is a seperate work whose copyright protection begins in 2003.

Book publishers will register your copyright claim with the Library of Congress for the version that actually gets published. Registration is not necessary for the copyright to be upheld, but it can make your infringement case simpler and stronger. The cost of registering is nominal.

One of my uncle's textbooks hit the shelves in fall of 2003, but the publisher actually put a copyright year of 2004 on it. I guess the zillion year monolopoly afforded by the Bono Copyright Extension Act wasn't enough for them, so they decided to milk it for an extra year.

Copyright notices aren't legally necessary anymore. They used to be (in order to prevent the "I didn't know it was under copyright protection" defense).

Legally, it certainly doesn't hurt to include a proper copyright notice on your manuscript, but it could make it harder to sell. Many agents and editors see the copyright notice as the mark of an amatuer. Some take it as an insult, an implication that they would steal your work. Also, if you've been shopping the manuscript around for a few years, the 2002 in the copyright notice gives your manuscript that not-quite-fresh scent.

Worry about making your manuscript good enough to steal. Leave the copyright notice off when you send it in to agents and editors. In the extremely rare case of somebody infringing your rights, get a lawyer.

Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer.

The Beautiful Schoolmarm said...

But you did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, right?

Anonymous said...

I went to a talk with an agent last week who said it "couldn't hurt." My mouth dropped open.

litagent said...

Copyright protection attaches itself as soon as you put a work on paper. There is no need to write "Copyright 2006". It makes you look like a novice, and a paranoid novice to boot. Publishers will register your copyright for the year that it is considered published (even if it hits the shelves a month early), but that doesn't mean that your work isn't protected before then.

countessolenska said...

The copyright year you'd select for the purpose of shopping your manuscript would be the year you completed the latest version of the work and saved it in your computer, wrote it down on paper, etc. That is, the year you fixed it in a "tangible medium of expression."

Copyright notice is no longer legally necessary, but using one does make it harder for infringers to claim certain defenses. So, although it makes sense to follow the advice of agents and editors on this matter, from a purely legal standpoint, you'd be potentially carving out a somewhat smaller universe of protection for yourself. Then again, like Miss Snark says, the industry folk to whom you'll want to shop your work -- the reputable ones -- aren't out to steal your stuff. Your choice.

(BTW, you MUST register your copyright in order to enforce it at law. If you don't, you can't sue. Also, copyright is no longer a fixed term of years. It now lasts from the year in which copyright arises until 70 years after your death. So, establishing a later copyright date is actually shortening the overall period, not stretching it.)

Anonymous said...

The one possible exception, where it might not be inappropriate to include a copyright notice, is if the work is copyright in a name other than the one you are using as a byline. In that case it might be advisable (to avoid trouble later) to put down something like, 'Copyright 2006 by Jane Doe (writing as Ima Pseudonym)'.

Whether that's relevant information at the time of submission, I don't know. But when writing under a pseudonym, I have always included some such notice just in case.

I hope THAT isn't what earned my last rejection!

spaulson said...

Legally, it certainly doesn't hurt to include a proper copyright notice on your manuscript, but it could make it harder to sell. Many agents and editors see the copyright notice as the mark of an amatuer. Some take it as an insult, an implication that they would steal your work. Also, if you've been shopping the manuscript around for a few years, the 2002 in the copyright notice gives your manuscript that not-quite-fresh scent.

This is my understanding too, especially the part about it looking amateurish. I'm curious whether anyone knows more about the use of copyright when writing under a pseudonym, as the latest Anonymous above me pointed out.

Also, I believe Miss Snark has said never to admit that your manuscript isn't "fresh". I'm not an agent, but I can certainly imagine what I would think if I got a query letter about "the novel Writer Z finished in 2001": What, hasn't he written anything (or at least anything better) since then? I need regular manuscripts from my clients to make the clients worthwhile! Or has he been shopping it around and it's been rejected by 20 agents already?

Dave Kuzminski said...

Lack of copyright registration only limits the damages you can sue for, if I recall correctly. It does not prevent you from suing.

litagent said...

Dave is right. Lack of registration only limits the types of damages you can receive in an infringement case. Countess Olenska is right too, that you must register in order to bring an infringement suit, but that registration CAN take place after the infringement occurs.

Be practical. Are you going to register every revision of your manuscript? The time to register a copyright is upon publication. In the meantime, your work is protected. Leave the copyright notice off the manuscript and worry about polishing your work, not unlikely thefts of it.

And while we're on the subject of being paranoid, don't ask an agent or editor who has decided to pass on your book to "please shred it". Do you really think that the guys who pick up the recycling are going through the trash for the next great American novel? Credit card numbers, maybe...

Bernita said...

Litagent,
A number of publishers/agents make it plain in their guidelines that they prefer to "shred"/ dispose of any ms in the event that it is not of interest.
A request by a writer to shred is often merely an euphemism for "no need to return" and no paranoia.

Anonymous said...

thanks!

from the paranoid amateur!

:)

Anonymous said...

And it depends what region of the world you're in. If you're in Australia, you don't need a copyright symbol at all apparently, though it's there, and copyright exists from the moment of creation without registration and lasts until 70 years after the death of the author - regardless of whether the piece was written when the person was 5 or 105.