As a creator of any intellectual property, you do have an inherent copyright for your work. According to the United States Copyright Office, a copyright is:
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. [And] your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.
Here’s the rub. When you finish your book, legally it is your work. However, with this “inherent” copyright you cannot sue someone for copyright infringement. You must register your copyright to have standing in a federal court to take legal action against someone who has hijacked your work. Think of your inherent copyright as an old guard dog with no teeth. Your trusted companion will bark at a burglar all he wants, but your guard dog can’t actually do any damage to the would be sneak thief. A registered copyright gives your guard dog a set of sharp metal dentures fit to chomp copyright infringers with Cujo-esque precision.
We would also strongly suggest that you file for a copyright as soon as your manuscript is finished (and by finished we mean independently proofed, edited, and read by disinterred parties) and before you start shopping your book to agents or publishing houses. It’s uncommon, but the unscrupulous out there could steal your work. Another thing to watch out for is anyone what wants to register a copyright under their name or company’s name. Most legitimate publishing houses can register a copyright for you as your agent. This means that the publishing house is simply filing the paperwork on your behalf, and you are the holder of the copyright. Should you agree to have a third party register a copyright under their name, no matter what “they say”, you’ve lost all legal rights to your work.
Registering a copyright can be as cheap as $35, so it’s an inexpensive insurance policy to protect your work. For more information about copyright registration, visit the United States Copyright Office’s website here.
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