What Copyright is NOT

Hi Miss Snark,

I have a copyright question - I am a first time author of a Fantasy novel which I am still trying to get published. I started writing the book in 2003 and had it officially copyrighted in 2005. Just recently I discovered a book (written by one of the most famous authors ever), that uses my story-line. Although the authors story is written with a different twist, the general concept is the same, and he even uses the exact title I used for a major earth event. It is basically my novel written as a horror story rather than a fantasy. This author had his work copyrighted and published in 2006 (and it has made the best seller list). Do I have any rights? Can a relatively unknown (me) even have a chance against a gorilla in the industry? What options do I have?

Thank you for your time

Do you have any rights? You mean, because he came up with the same idea you did, you get part of his money?

Copyright infringement means that someone took YOUR work, your actual words, because they saw it, had access to it, or in some way used work that was not theirs. Copyright infringement is not "we had the same idea and he got his published first".

Copyright is not a patent or a trademark. You copyright the body of work, not your ideas, and not your titles, and certainly not names and phrases. Although, if you use the phrase "nitwit of the day" you owe me $20.


Rachel Vincent said...

Oooh, I'm dying to know what the bestseller was. Was it Cell?

Anonymous said...

I know it hurts to see your ideas elsewhere, but sometimes it just happens. I had a fantastic idea for a novel, but while in the plotting process, I explained the concept at length to my favorite librarian. She pulled a book off the new releases shelf, written by an author I've NEVER read before, and handed it to me.

Don't you know, that writer had used ALL my ideas, including a main character's name and several settings? The good news is that I went back to work, and have kept the aspect of the story that compelled me to write, and twisted it until it is even stronger. The story has changed completely, but the gist is still there. Obviously this writer and I didn't steal ideas from each other, since neither of us had heard of the other. But the similiarities were uncanny. Just something in the ozone, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Robert Moog, inventor of the electronic synththesizer, spoke with charmingly childlike wonder about how, after he introduced his invention, he discovered that engineers from all corners of the world had been working on similar projects. He took this as evidence of a group conciousness in human beings. Maybe it's a higher conciousness; maybe it's simpler and we're just all influenced by the same things.

If a stranger shares your ideas, be amazed that you share so much with a stranger. Don't imagine that any of your ideas are unique. Dr. Moog got the credit for his invention because he made the first working product, not because he had the idea first.

BTW, what's "official" copyrighting?

Maya Reynolds said...

This is exactly the basis of the pending lawsuit in London right now over "The DaVinci Code."

In 1982, three writers collaborated on a non-fiction book called "Holy Blood, Holy Grail."

In 2003, author Dan Brown published "The DaVinci Code," using many (but not all) of the same themes outlined in HBHG.

Two of the HBHG authors are suing Random House (publisher of both books) for theft of the "architecture" of their book. The case has been presented and is now awaiting the judge's decision.

Most legal experts expect the case to be decided in favor of Random House. The plaintiffs--who wrote a non-fiction book--are now claiming copyright over "facts." It is highly unlikely that the judge will find in their favor.

Stacia said...

*gasp*! You mean there's already a book about a Ring of Power, and a ragtag bunch of buddies have to go on a quest to destroy it?

That guy stole from me!

(Yes, I know, he said a horror book pubbed this year. Still couldn't resist.)

I think there's some kind of mass consciousness for ideas, which explaines why stuff like this happens. I serously and totally superstitiously try to avoid thinking about my ideas too much when they're just forming, in the fear it will become part of that floating idea bank.

That sounded stupid. But I think you guys will know what I mean, so I'm leaving it in.

Bernita said...

And here I've been putting up a little (TM Miss Snark) everytime I've used "Yanno"...

Anonymous said...

When I handed in the first draft of my MFA thesis to the author who was to serve as my advisor, by pure coincidence it had an awful lot in common with the novel he was writing (and already had under contract).

There was no question of one of us borrowing from the other, just a matter of similar interests and research (which is why we got along well in the first place, perhaps). But he did have to recuse himself from my thesis committee, which was a bit of a headache, and the whole thing left a lingering feeling of strangeness for both of us, I think.

But someday our similar novels can battle it out for the small stakes of the literary fiction marketplace!

Carter said...

Let's see, if the book carries a 2006 copyright, that means it was originally submitted in...2004? I suspect this letter writer could well have the tables turned on him/her if they kick up a fuss.

"Official" copyright means the writer paid the U.S. Copyright Office $30 for a registration. IMHO, it takes a special kind of paranoia to assume that anyone wants to steal your book. Your publisher will deal with this at the appropriate time.

Caitlin said...

As a journalist I've been taught a fair bit about copyright and the basic gist is that what you write is copyright from the minute you set pen to paper or finger to keypad. You don't have to DO anything to make something copyright, though if it's unpublished there are various ways you can prove the date that you created the work should you need to. I've also been taught that you can't copyright an idea, only its expression.

So the thing that really confuses me is the comment that this guy said he had something "officially copyrighted". (I also had someone else tell me recently that he had "copyrighted an idea for a book").

I don't get it. How would you "officially copyright" something and why would you bother? It's not like a patent or a trademark that you have to apply for - it's inherent. And since when can you copyright an idea?

I am Australian and now live in the UK and all my legal training has related to those two countries. It's possible that the US has a different system but I thought that all this stuff was meant to have been harmonised. Can someone explain please?

Danielle said...

I'm in the UK and have wondered how to legally copyright something - but then again, I agree with Carter.

For everyone who writes a book, there is always a similar book out there. It can't be helped.

A mayor once told me how to 'copyright' things - well, not legally, but to prove that the ideas are yours. When you have your book or plan, put it in an envelope and mail it to yourself via Recorded Delivery. Lock it away and never, ever open it unless the need arises.

Okay, so it's cheating, but it's proof, with time and date, that it was yours.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly the basis of the pending lawsuit in London right now over "The DaVinci Code."

No it's not. The guy who wrote to Miss Snark is saying that no one else can use some random idea he got, even if they never knew he had it (which they didn't).

Clue gun moment of the day: you can't copyright ideas, and if said writer never had access to your work, you don't have a case that he stole you "term for earth event."

The Holy Blood lunatics are saying that a fiction writer can't use facts they presented, published and made available to anyone to read for over twenty years as the basis for a fictional work. Brown says he read their book. He even quotes the title of THEIR book in HIS book.

Both cases are full of crapola. The second example only made it to a court because it would be such cool promo for the film.

Anonymous said...

Caitlin writes: How would you "officially copyright" something and why would you bother?

One answer is, we bother 'cause it's in our publishing contract. And my comments refer to US copyright only, not other countries. I have no clue how it works outside my native land.

Small presses often ask the author to provide proof of US registered copyright. That means, we, the author, have to plunk down $30 or whatever the bloodsuckers have nailed the price as this year. We send off two copies of our book, printed in teeny tiny letters to save postage, and in return, about 6 weeks later we get a nifty piece of (recycled) paper with a registration number on it. This we photocopy for our publisher, to protect said publisher's tushie in case of lawsuit.

It's probably overkill. But if my contract says to do it, I do it.


none said...

My understanding wrt US copyright law (and I AM NOT A LAWYER) is that although you automatically have copyright in everything you write, if you want to receive damages for copyright infringement, the copyright must be registered.

Anonymous said...

Copyright exists from the moment the work is in permanent form. I think by "official" copyright you mean registered with the U.S. Copyright Office (by sending in your $30 et al.)

From what I've read on this blog before, it's best NOT to take that more "official" step on your own, since your publisher will handle it once your MS has sold.

(Besides, are you going to keep sending in another $30 every time you make a revision?)

Anonymous said...

Poohba, that's just my point. If your pub does it for you, fine, let 'em. If your publishing contract calls for YOU to do it, you DO IT and write the $30 off on your taxes.

I have no scientific data to back this up, but my guts say no two publishers treat the contract exactly the same way. Small presses have their ways, big houses have different ways.

In fact, 'til just lately, after a lot of temper tantrums by romance authors, one major NY house had a contract that said they would obtain official copyright to each novel they bought, and they DIDN'T DO IT for any of them, for years. This has changed now, thanks to the tenacity of some of their authors.


Anonymous said...

Some guy plagerized my dh's work a few years ago. He took entire paragraphs verbatim from dh's work and plopped them into his own, without attribution. Bad, bad. We are working on retribution. anon3

Anonymous said...

Every written document that is submitted for copyright is available for public review. So, just because you think you have never met another author and there is no-way they could have stolen your idea, you may be fooling yourself.

Having simular ideas is one thing. Having simular ideas that are presented in nearly identical outcomes, is quite another.

When you write a book, you are inclined to submit it to as many companies and agents as possible in hopes that someone will publish it. Do you honestly think that some of the slush pile contents do not end-up in other's possesion? or that ideas presented are not presented to other more established writers?

Even the best writers run out of ideas. The DiVinci code lawsuit, if called in favor of HBHG, will open many suits of this nature.

BorderMoon said...

"Do I have any rights?" Because someone else came up with the same idea totally independently? This guy is kidding, right? Please tell me he's kidding....

PS -- if the "major earth event" is something like an "earthquake" or a "hurricane" or a "tornado", you may have to sue the National Weather Service.