Maybe you’ve just written the best story or come up with a winning story idea, but you’re worried that someone will steal it from under you. It’s understandable to be possessive of your written stories and ideas, especially if you are just starting out as a writer and want to protect your work. While the likelihood of someone stealing your work word for word may be small, you can take certain steps to understand your rights, copyright your work, and ensure it is protected.
EditUnderstanding Your Rights to Your Stories and Ideas
- Keep in mind you cannot copyright an idea. According to Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act, “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embodied in such work.” This means that according to the law, you cannot copyright an idea or concept. You can attempt to sue someone for “idea misappropriation” if you believe they have stolen your idea or concept, but this can be difficult to prove in court.
- It can also be useful to remember that although you cannot protect your ideas, there is also a very slim chance that someone else will execute your idea the same exact way as you or as good as you and then sell it. This is why you should not be shy about sharing ideas with trusted friends, writing partners, and collaborators. Protecting your ideas, besides being impossible to do legally speaking, is also not as important as protecting your written stories.
- Be aware of what you can protect in terms of your written work. As soon as your written work is put down on paper, it is copyrighted from that moment forward. Your written work does not need to be published in order to be protected and you do not need to place a copyright symbol on your written work for it to be protected. However, you may want to consider copyrighting your work with official bodies, such as the Writers Guild of America and the U.S. Copyright Office, to ensure it is protected in the event of a legal dispute.
- Copyrighting your work allows you to protect your execution or expression of your idea. This could be in the form of a short story, a novel draft, a script, or a film treatment. So while you cannot protect your ideas, you can protect your written stories through copyright.
- If you end up in court over your copyright, you will need to prove that you possessed your execution of the idea before someone else and that there are enough similarities between your execution and someone else’s execution to suggest your execution has been stolen. Registering your work for a legal copyright is one way to prove this. You should also collect evidence to show that you conceived the execution of your idea first.
- Note the small likelihood of someone stealing unpublished work. In order for someone to steal your unpublished writing and profit from it, they must somehow get a copy of your work, develop and package it for the market, and sell it to an editor or publisher. It must then be read and purchased by readers. At this point, the person who stole the work may not be able to stay below the radar and could be found out. There is a only small likelihood that someone would go through all this trouble to steal your unpublished work, no matter how good it might be.
- It’s important to remember how rare it is for unpublished work to get stolen and repackaged. Most writers view stealing other people’s writers as a lot of work and the consequences of getting caught may outweigh the trouble of doing it.
- Protecting published writing may be more of a concern, though again, it is unlikely that someone will try to steal your writing word for word. You can use copyright and hard evidence to challenge someone in the event they try to steal your published work.
EditCopyrighting Your Work
- Gather written evidence of your work. One of the ways you can protect your work is by creating a paper trail that proves your work is yours in one place. This could be a copy of the novel summary or outline, a script treatment, and all of the existing drafts of your written work.
- You can gather all of this written evidence together in a computer folder or print them out and create a physical folder of evidence. Add to the folder as you continue to write and develop your ideas on paper. This folder will act as evidence of your rights to your work in the event of a dispute.
- If you are using a computer folder, you should archive it and use password protection on it. This will ensure the folder is protected from any computer glitches or issues.
- Send the evidence to a trusted friend or colleague. Though you will have your own copy of the archive, it can also be useful to send the evidence via email or mail to a trusted friend of colleague. This way, in the event of a lawsuit, this person can come forward as a credible witness and provide their own copy of the evidence.
- This person could be your editor, your writing partner, your publisher, or a close friend or family member. Chose someone you can trust, preferably someone who is good at saving and preserving important documentation.
- Archive all your emails and documents relating to the written work. Save all your emails and any related documentation where you discuss the written work with others or send copies of the written work to others. This will ensure you have access to all documents relating to the written work and have a record of who had access to the written work.
- You should also keep a detailed account of any meetings or in person discussions you had with individuals about the written work. This will ensure you have a record you can refer to later in the event of a dispute around ownership of the written work.
- Register your work with the Writer’s Guild of America. This option is useful if you have a final draft of a script that you want to protect. Registering your script with the WGA will allow you to create a public record of your claim to authorship.
- You can register with the Writers Guild of America, West , based in Los Angeles, and/or the WGAeast, based in New York. To register your script, you will need to mail in a package that contains the title page of the material and your name, one unbound copy of the material and a check for the registration fee. You can also complete the registration process online on the WGA website.
- The WGA charges $10 for members of the guild, and $20 for non-members at WGAwest, $22 for non-members at the WGAeast.
- Apply for a copyright from the United States Copyright Office. Another option is to register your written work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering your work through the U.S. Copyright Office can come in handy in the event you have a legal dispute over ownership of your written work.
- You can find more information about copyrighting your work through the Copyright Office website or through the mail. The fee for registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office is $30.
EditProtecting Your Work in Other Ways
- Place a copyright symbol on your written work. If you are worried about your work getting stolen and want to have an extra layer of copyright, you can place a copyright notice on the upper right corner of your document. It should appear as: Copyright © 20XX by (your name).
- Keep in mind some editors and publishers consider placing a copyright notice on your written work amateurish and a rookie move. Most editors and publishers are aware of the rules around protection of your work, as your work is protected the moment is put down on paper. So they may view the copyright notice as unnecessary.
- Submit your work to reputable editors and publishers. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to ensure your work is protected is to always submit work to reputable editors and publishers. Avoid editors who want you to sign away the rights to your work right away or publishers who do not produce quality materials (for example, self-publishers and publishers of low end e-Books).
- Reputable editors and publishers will also not likely try to steal your ideas from you and resell it or repackage it. Most big publishers and editors do not want to get involved in a stolen work dispute, as it will end up being bad press and a legal hassle for them.
- Consult an intellectual property attorney if you suspect your work has been stolen. If you are concerned that your written stories have been stolen or repackaged by another writer, you should consult an intellectual property attorney. The attorney can advise you on what you can do to protect your ownership of the work and prove your ownership in court.
- If you are negotiating any legal agreements with a publisher or a literary agent in terms of the rights to your writing, you should also consider hiring a lawyer. This will ensure you and your work are protected and you receive the best deal for your work.