Copyrighting Our Books

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

When I was first signing a book contract in 2008, I remember that the industry generally scoffed at writers worried about copyright issues. Some writers wondered if they should register a copyright on their manuscripts before submitting them to agents and publishers. There was even a line of thinking that authors could simply mail their manuscripts to themselves to acquire a ‘poor man’s copyright’ through the postal service.

Acquiring a copyright to send work to a reputable agent or publisher was probably overkill. But the problem now is more insidious: there are cases where retailers like Amazon have challenged writers to prove a book’s content is theirs after receiving challenges from unscrupulous writers.

I’d been meaning to copyright my books for some time, but it became a higher priority after the copyright challenges became news. And I hopped right over to the US Copyright site after reading a post on Joanna Penn’s blog: an interview with attorney Kathryn Goldman. I recommend you read or listen to the entire post.

One of the things Kathryn Goldman brought up in the interview is that the US Copyright is a better deal than one in the UK, for instance. It’s $35 for a copyright in the US for the life of the copyright (a one-time fee). In the UK, it’s £65 for 5 years.  According to Goldman, “if you have a registration in the United States and your country is a signatory to the Berne Convention, then you’re entitled to the protections that that country offers based on the U.S. registration.” That’s important information for international writers.

I found the copyright registration process easy, if not intuitive. I’ll go one step further: the US Copyright site reminds me of early websites in the late 1990s. It’s not a modern site, y’all. But once I got the hang of it, I zipped through quickly. I registered 11 books in probably 45 minutes time (and for a total cost of $385).

Since the site isn’t intuitive, I thought I’d walk you through my process on it.  I’m a novelist without a coauthor for those who don’t regularly follow my blog.

I started at the Copyright site (the first page isn’t so bad, but just wait) and chose ‘literary works’.  If you want the definition, they list it as “a wide variety of works such as fiction, nonfiction, poetry, textbooks, reference works, directories, catalogs, advertising copy, compilations of information, computer programs and databases.”

You’ll need to create a user name and login.

Choose ‘register a new claim’ in the left sidebar.

Answer yes or no…for me, they were all yes. If you had a coauthor or were part of an anthology, your answers would be different. And I did register each work separately–I didn’t attempt to register an entire series under one copyright because my understanding from writer forums is that that wouldn’t work.

A pop up box pops up and you indicate you’ve read it and your book is eligible  (give it a look-over to make sure it is).

Type of work: literary work

Check the box below.

Note: Keep hitting ‘continue’ at the top of the page or else you might accidently click ‘change application’ at the bottom of the page. As I mentioned earlier…the site is not intuitive.

Type in your title.

Mark if the book has already been published (mine all had…this is not a problem).

Indicate the nation of first publication, the year you wrote it, and the date it was published. Note: they want the month, date, and year (look it up on Amazon if you don’t remember). If you don’t put it in the MM/DD/YYYY format, it will kick you back to the previous screen with no explanation whatsoever. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong.

List your author information: name, citizenship, and what part of the book you were responsible for (for me, this was limited to text. I didn’t design my own cover). There’s a spot for pen names here, too.

Add your address (we’re the claimant).

Limit your claim if it applies (it didn’t for me).

Provide contact information for anyone who wants permission to use your work (the ‘add me’ tab at the top is a shortcut and will fill in the information you listed previously).

Add your info in case the copyright office needs to contact you with questions (or use the wonderful ‘add me’ tab).

Add your name and info for the copyright certificate to be mailed to.

I skipped paying for special handling, but if you’re being challenged on your copyright of your work, this is an option to expedite matters.  They claimed the process could take as long as 10 months…I certainly hope it doesn’t. I’m hoping it’s like the passport office…they always say it will take longer than it actually does.

Check the box and add your name to ‘sign’ the document.

Review your submission and then add it to the cart.

To repeat the process and add more books, click ‘add more services’. Otherwise, you can check out.

You can pay via bank draft or credit card.

Here’s the pain in the neck part for anyone who has printed versions of their books…you must mail them a hard copy (I sent them published books I had on hand).

If your books are only available in digital format or if the books are unpublished, you can submit files electronically. Here is the full list of requirements for sending a digital file:

“When is an electronic copy acceptable?

An electronic copy of the work being registered may be uploaded directly into eCO if it is within one of the following categories:

• Unpublished work

• Work published only electronically

• Published work for which the deposit requirement is identifying material

• Published work for which there are special agreements requiring a hard-copy deposit to be sent separately to the Library of Congress

For works where a hard-copy is required, you can still submit an application and payment by eCO and send copies of your work to the Copyright Office by the U.S. Postal Service or express courier.”

But don’t send them an epub or mobi file!  They take:

.doc (Microsoft Word Document)

.docx (Microsoft Word Open XML Document)

.htm, .html (HyperText Markup Language)

.pdf (Portable Document Format)

.rtf (Rich Text Document)

.txt (Text File)

.wpd (WordPerfect Document)

.wps (Microsoft Works Word Processor Document)

As I mentioned, I had to send them printed books…my books didn’t meet any of the requirements for electronic submission.  Before my next book comes out, you better believe I’m submitting it digitally.

At the bottom of the page, there’s a section for printing shipping slips. I clicked it and then clicked on the link they provided after they’d prepared the slips. We’re supposed to put one slip with each book (I attached them with rubber bands to the books) and then mail them to the address at the bottom of the slips.

We can check on the progress of our registration claim on their homepage in the ‘open cases’ link to the left.

Is it convoluted? Yes. Is it a pain? Most definitely.

But it’s not particularly expensive, especially considering the cost of everything else book-related.

Have you registered the copyright for your books?

I also wanted to let my blog readers know about a special offer (and I’m an affiliate for it).  It’s called The Writer’s BundleThe Write Life, a website for writers, is offering a deal this week only (starting today at 6 a.m. ET):  a package they call The Writer’s Bundle.They’ve bundled together 10 ebooks, courses and tools on freelancing, novel writing, self-publishing, marketing, editing and more. Purchased separately, they’d cost nearly $1,700. But for the next four days, The Write Live is offering the entire package for just $99. Click here for more information or to download the bundle.

How and why to copyright our books: Click To Tweet

Photo credit: The Library of Congress via Visualhunt / No known copyright restrictions

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20 thoughts on “Copyrighting Our Books

  1. Hi Elizabeth – such an important post .. and I hadn’t realised the differences between the States and UK re copyright … I’ll take note of this … cheers for now – Hilary

      1. Hello Elizabeth – do you or anyone else here know what happens to your copyright if, after you get it, you end up with a traditional publisher who changes pieces of it. Does that extinguish the copyright? Do you then need to go get a new one? Or, should I get an editor to tell me everything I’ve done wrong and change evrtything myself first, then hope for the best.
        I think you see my point.
        Ross Doerr

        1. Hi Ross. I’m definitely no expert, and am hoping one will weigh in. I can tell you what I *suspect* will be true. From what I’ve read on this subject, if *dramatic* changes to the book were made (if, for instance, I decided to change the killer in my murder mystery to another suspect), or if an ISBN were changed, or the title, or if the *publisher* changed (as in your example)…I would think you would either need to apply for another copyright or would need to edit the book information on that copyright (if that’s doable). I don’t think this applies at all to small edits, typos, etc.

  2. It’s the behind-the-scenes elements like this that readers, for the most part, don’t realize writers have to deal with. More to it than just mailing that copy back to yourself. Sounds like The Writer’s Bundle is offering an awesome deal with this week.

    1. You could definitely copyright a short work, but might be better to copyright a collection, price-wise.

      I know…it’s a lot in that bundle. I was amazed. And amazed that there’s so much helpful content out there.

    1. I think you’re right. That and trying to figure out how the site works. :)

      I think I’ll copyright all future books before they’re published. It’s certainly easier that way.

  3. Wow! This is really helpful, Elizabeth. And it doesn’t sound that terribly difficult to do. It’s not something you might think of right away, but I can see how it prevents all sorts of trouble.

  4. Wow – just wow, Elizabeth. I’ve been thinking about this and wondering if just self-publishing with a copyright date on the page with the ISBN’s was enough. Sigh! I guess it isn’t. I will copy and paste this and print it out so I can do it. Sigh! I don’t want to. Sigh!
    But thanks for sharing. Sigh!

  5. Holy frustration! I hadn’t heard of the challenges. That’s so messed up. Thanks for bringing it up, and the process to copyright. I’m heading over to read Joanna’s post.

  6. One of my unpublished books has a US Copyright. It was unpublished allowing it to be sent in digital form. It takes 9 months for digital books and 1 entire year for physical books to have their submission approved but once they give the green light, the registration paper arrives to your home address really quickly.

    For simplicity (and let’s face it, 35 USD can get really expensive if you copyright several books at once), I copyrighted most of my books in Mexico. The process is super easy, you just send two cd-roms pf your book in pdf or word format with the signed petition form, photocopy of a legit photo id such as a passport and a bank payment and within a maximum of 3 weeks your copyright paper arrives in the mail with one of the cd-roms that includes a sticker with the copyright code of your work. In Mexico, it only costs around 11 usd to copyright a book and the paper is valid for the rest of the life of the author/90 years. The deal is sweet if you live in Mexico (or in the very least can feign a sorta legit address).

    I like to feel safe that in the small risk someone tries to ripoff my hard work, that I have proof of authorship. I copyrighted all of my Ominous Book novels before I put them live on the net.

    1. It’s definitely one of those things that’s cheaper on the front end than the back end! I only had to do 11 books since the rest were trad-pubbed. But you’re so right–if you’ve got a big backlist of self-pubbed books, it can rack up quite a price tag.

      I’m fascinated by your Mexican copyrights! It sounds like…is it technically restricted to Mexican residents? Regardless, as you’re saying, it’s nice to have proof of authorship. I really don’t know how we could acceptably prove our authorship otherwise. I’ve heard that even a registered ISBN doesn’t prove anything to the retailers.

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