Learn How to Copyright a Book to Protect Manuscripts

a man's hands cupping a levitating copyright symbol
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As book manuscripts travel through electronic means, and as the international worlds of books and other media are "closer" than ever before, and as there are so many new and unproven players (like dozens of self-publishing services and hybrid publishers), book copyright protection questions are more important than ever.  

Of course, once your book is under contract with an established publisher, the copyright is legally assigned. But before you've got that agreement in writing, it is natural to want to know how best to protect your intellectual property when there are so many different potential eyes seeing it in an unpublished manuscript form. Here are some answers to questions about copyright for books.

Your Unpublished Work Is Already Protected by Copyright

Actually, your unpublished work is already protected by U.S. copyright, which "... protects an author's expression in literary, artistic, or musical form." According to the U.S. Copyright office, you may wish to place a copyright notice on any unpublished copies of your manuscript that leave your control. Example: Unpublished work © 2018 Jane Doe

Where this becomes a little sticky is in the highly unlikely event that someone steals your work — technically, it's copyrighted — but the issue might be actually proving it.

So, if you would like ​peace of mind, you may want to further protect your work, which brings us to...

How to Copyright Your Book

If you decide you want the extra assurance, you can register a literary work online through the U. S. Electronic Copyright Office.

You Cannot Copyright A Book Title

It is true. A book title cannot be protected by copyright.

Sending An Unpublished Manuscript Via Email

While getting your manuscript stolen is technically a possibility, it's not very likely, especially if you're an unknown author — mostly because it makes no business sense. Book marketing and book sales are hard. Why would anyone (publisher, nefarious blocked writer) go through the trouble of stealing the work of an unknown author and give themselves a huge distribution hurdle? For what?

And even though your book is undoubtedly brilliant and high-potential, the volume of unpublished manuscripts flying around to agents and editors and self-publishers is very high. Those out to steal a runaway best-selling book to claim their own would be undertaking an effort akin to finding a needle in a thousand haystacks.

That said, take sensible precautions. When sending manuscripts via email for review by anyone with whom you don't already have a contract or agreement, send them in PDF form, not in a word document. If you are sending your unpublished book manuscript to a self-publishing service to be produced, you should make sure the company you're dealing with is reputable and that their manuscript submission method is secure. 

U.S. Copyright Law Doesn't Apply Worldwide

"A self-publishing service explains in their booklet that every creative work is a priori protected by American Law. Does this apply to me as well, considering that I am not American? I am a Serbian citizen who lives and works in Europe?" Yes, but... According to the U.S. Copyright Law, "Copyright protection is available for all unpublished works, regardless of the nationality or residence of the author." So, it would seem that if you are sending your work to a U.S. company, it would be protected by United States copyright law.

However, it also states, "There is no such thing as an 'international copyright' that will automatically protect an author's writings throughout the entire world. Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country depends, basically, on the national laws of that country." So, if you are really worried about how your book rights are protected (or not) worldwide, it would be best to check with an agent or attorney in your own country.