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I have an irrational fear of my work being stolen. I understand that this is, realistically, extremely unlikely to happen. There are just too many barriers to something being successfully stolen and sold, and I should be able to put my name and copyright on it and be ready to go.

Unfortunately, that understanding doesn't seem to be sufficient. Despite any rational arguments I make, I still find myself extremely hesitant to share my work and seek feedback - the slim possibility is enough to paralyze me.

So my question is - how can I go about ensuring proof of ownership to reassure my paranoid self? Is there a series of actions I can take, so that in a worst-case scenario I could approach a lawyer and definitively show that I was the original writer?

Note: I'm not sure if this question belongs here or on Law. It is specific to writing (and I am in the US), and I am willing to accept an opinion from someone experienced in copyright/publishing but who is not actually a lawyer.

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    I think that, if you need what is specifically legal advice, you'd get more comprehensive answers on the law site. However, that won't fix the problem, which is, with all respect, your fears; addressing those is the only way to fix this problem. – Neil Fein Nov 19 '15 at 22:53
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Copyrighting is a fairly simple process, if your work is finished. Note the whole "mailing it to yourself" thing doesn't actually work.

It's important to note that copyright attaches as soon as something is written, published or not, including the copyright notice or not. If you can prove the age of your files (in google docs, or a file backup system, etc) - you can prove when you wrote it.

It sounds as if you're concerned someone will steal your work and sell it as their own. This is highly unlikely. They may steal your plot lines or characters, but actually trying to pass someone else's work off as their own? Not really.

To seek feedback in a place that's a bit more secure, you could try CritiqueCircle.com, which requires a login. You'll also get much better editing results.

Your bigger concern should be whether putting your book online will make it "previously published". That would be bad. The first chapter is fine, or the whole book if it's hidden behind a signup gate or something to that effect.

Another thing to worry about is the ISBN. You're going to need to pony up serious cash to Bowker for real ISBN's. Otherwise Bookbaby or Amazon will be the "publisher" - which means they control the book even if they don't own it.

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New writers ask this question all the time.

The direct answer is: Everything you write is automatically protected by copyright the instant you write it. To have legal proof that you really wrote it, you should register your copyright with the copyright office in your country. Last I checked, in the U.S., to register a copyright of a book costs $35.

I've heard lots of new writers talk about schemes to prove they wrote the book without registering the copyright, like mailing a copy to yourself in a sealed envelope or leaving a copy with a lawyer. I don't see the point with most of these schemes. Lawyers typically charge $100 an hour or more. It would cost you way more than $35 to get a lawyer to safeguard your book. Mailing a copy to yourself is easily scammable: as someone else on here noted, how would you prove that you didn't mail yourself an empty, unsealed envelope and put something in it later. On top of that, there are specific provisions in copyright law that give you additional protection if you register the copyright. Nothing in copyright law says you get these extra protections if you give a copy to your lawyer or sign a copy with your own blood or sacrifice three chickens to the Great Novel God or whatever scheme you've come up with. Just pay the $35 and do it legally!

In any case, the odds that someone is going to try to steal your book are tiny. Yes, it happens, but someone is far more likely to try to steal your car or pickpocket your wallet. In both cases, I take reasonable precautions. I don't leave my car unlocked with the keys in the ignition. I don't leave copies of my manuscripts lying on the table in the coffee shop and go home.

If you were an established, famous writer -- J. K. Rowling or Steven King or some such -- maybe there'd be people out there trying to hack into your computer and steal your book. But if you're an unknown, they're just not trying. They've never heard of you, and even if they had, they have no idea if you're any good.

Don't waste time trying to protect your writing from thieves. Spend your time writing and polishing your work until you have something that is good enough that someone might want to steal it.

  • "Everything you write is automatically protected by copyright the instant you write it." This is correct if one's country is a signatory of the Berne convention on copyright, which is the case of a large fraction of, but not all of, the countries on Earth. – a CVn Feb 24 '18 at 20:18
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    @MichaelKjörling Fair enough. I think there are 174 signatures out of 190 or so countries in the world. (This isn't the place to debate whether certain debated entities are "countries" so I won't get into the exact number.) But yes, not everyone. Frankly I don't know how copyright works in the exceptions. In any case, the OP said he was in the US, so I was targetting my answer to the US. But a disclaimer is appropriate. – Jay Feb 25 '18 at 4:08
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You could copyright it. Here's the link for the U.S. copyright office:

http://www.copyright.gov/

You could also copy it, mail the copy to yourself, and stash it away without opening it when it arrives.

Should your work truly get stolen, you could always sue, and gain a reputation in addition to making some money, in the process. When introducing yourself to a publisher, producer, or agent, you'd be able to say "I'm the one they stole that bestseller from" with a straight face.

  • I agree that emailing it to yourself (and to your work email, etc.) is pretty good proof of ownership. It is dated by the transmitting and receiving companies, and a copy is saved by them. I can't see how it could then be stolen. – S. Mitchell Nov 20 '15 at 20:51
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    Mailing a copy to yourself protects nothing! What is to stop you from mailing an unsealed envelope to yourself, and then sealing in whatever you want at a later date? – esoterik Nov 24 '15 at 23:13
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    Technically, anything you write is automatically copyright the instant you write it. You can REGISTER a copyright with the copyright office. – Jay Feb 24 '18 at 19:59

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