I have written a book recently, and I want to share it so it can be reviewed, but I am worried over that it might get stolen if I do so.

So is there a way, like a watermark or signature, to protect it, showing that the work belongs to me?

  • 10
    If it's really, really important to you, the best you can do with plain text is to provide slightly different versions to different reviewers. One or two words different to each distribution channel will let you compare and figure out where the leak is. But text is easy to copy, so it's nearly impossible to stymie simply sharing the work preventatively.
    – William
    Apr 5, 2021 at 15:04
  • I'm unclear on one thing: is this a published work or are you still editing it? If it's published, that in itself should be enough to prove that you wrote it and your publisher (or if you've self-published, Amazon, or whichever platform[s] you used) published it...
    – Erk
    Jul 7, 2021 at 23:43

4 Answers 4


The law is your friend:

Legally, the work does belong to you. Once you start freely distributing it in places where you are clearly giving up control, good luck enforcing that. Copyright doesn't require you to fill any paperwork to be legal. If the book gets into a public environment, though, it's really hard to stop people who aren't making money off of it from illegally distributing the content (unless you have a full-time legal team monitoring the internet). Unfortunately, posting it almost anywhere is a dangerous and murky place to be.

Back up the various versions of the work, saving regularly under the current date (using a save with the current date in the title), so there is a clear documentation of you writing the work, or at this point at least editing it. At the top of every page, format so every page says the name of the book and "Copyright © 2021 SirDancealot" or whenever you finished the first draft.

Find people you know or who are in reader groups as beta readers to read it and give you feedback on the story. Sorry online folks, I don't really trust the internet with content like this. Distribute it to them over something specific like email, along with a cover sheet of questions and instructions for what conditions they can share it (only them, or they can let others read it with permission, etc.). Giving it to beta readers is also like creating witnesses. Even having emailed your book around to people is proof you wrote it and you distributed to individuals only with specific instructions not to distribute it publicly.

  • 2
    If the work gets into the public domain, it's impossible to stop anyone (making money or not) from distributing it. In the US, for original written work, created in 1978 or later, with a known author (not work-for-hire), and otherwise following copyright rules, the work can only enter public domain by expiring (70 years after the death of the author) or being deliberately placed in the public domain by the copyright holder (which, you would know about if you do it).... Apr 5, 2021 at 13:28
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    ...I think what you may mean is that it's hard to keep people from illegally redistributing your work if copies are widely available, which is kind of true--you can always send out DMCA notices and sue people, but given the size of the internet it's likely that it will be re-posted somewhere else. Which is surely a problem for widely famous content creators who don't want their work leaked before the official release date. But as a new author, honestly, you will have a hard time getting anyone to read your book at all, forget about bothering to steal it and redistribute it. Apr 5, 2021 at 13:33
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    Another poor man's solution is to print a copy of your manuscript, seal it in an evelope (a large one for purposes of containing large paper documents) and mail it to yourself. Make sure it is Post Marked by the Post Office which establishes a date it was sent on. Then wait until you receive the letter to pass out your work to beta readers. It is vitally important that you do not open the letter upon reciept but file it somewhere where it will be safe from damage. Should you need to litigate copyright, the letter, still sealed, can be used as evidence of copyright date.
    – hszmv
    Apr 5, 2021 at 14:35
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    nit: "Legally, the work does belong to you, until you start freely distributing it in places where you are clearly giving up control." This is incorrect. Copyright remains yours until it expires, you sell it to someone else, or you expressly release the work into the public domain. How you choose to distribute the work has no relevance, and by default, someone who obtains a copy of a work has no right to make additional copies (outside of fair use) unless you, the copyright owner, license them to do so. This is why FOSS works.
    – josh3736
    Apr 5, 2021 at 21:12
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    @hszmv This was discussed over at Law SE. As far as the law is concerned, the post office doesn't verify or certify the contents of a package, so the opposing party can argue that you mailed an unsealed package and then put the manuscript in later.
    – Haem
    Apr 6, 2021 at 10:12

Your book is going to be stolen. Just get used to that. Sometimes they are stolen from the printer with the camera-ready pages (or PDFs nowadays). Some of my books were on pirate sites before they were on shelves. It's not even like these people want these particular books, but they compete with their friends on numbers. See Ebook Piracy Is Rampant And Impossible To Stop, for example.

When I've provided PDF copies to reviews, I modified the file to draw a diagonal red line across the page and leave a note at the bottom, such as "Review copy provided to so-and-so on this date". This doesn't stop them from pirating it, but it does provide notice. Getting relief is still practically impossible.

Various people talk about various legal remedies, but you'll spend less money just letting it go. Unless your publisher wants to pursue that for you at their expense with their resources, you're likely to spend more than you'd make. Proof of ownership is irrelevant if you aren't going to spend the money to fight it. Even then, if you win, you have to then spend money to collect the damages. None of this happens automatically. And, just because you are right doesn't mean anyone in the legal system cares.

For example, in the US I can send a DCMA takedown request, which will usually immediately take down an offending site (if it's under US jurisdiction). But, the site can file a counterclaim, reversing the takedown, and after that I'd have to take it to court to dispute the counterclaim even if it has no merit. So, I don't bother anymore.

I've also found that DRM is more a deterrent to willing customers than a threat to piracy. DRM tends to reduce sales.

But, any business is going to have some amount of loss through fraud, waste, and abuse. The trick is not expend more fighting that than you would lose by ignoring it. It sucks that it happens, but that's business.

Thinking about this more, I thought I might inject some of the financials involved with some back-of-the-envelope calculations. This is strongly tilted toward my experience running businesses in the US.

Consider that your book sells for $20 and that your royalty rate is 10% (much higher with Kindle Direct Publishing, etc, but they also push your price down). The particular price isn't important. With a traditional publisher, your royalty is likely off the wholesale price of the book, around 45-50% of the list price (that's why stores can sell them at what looks like a discount). For one book sold, you make $1. After taxes and so on, you're making a lot less.

How much money can you expect to make. Most self-published books will never sell more than 1,000 copies, and most other books never sell more than 5,000. I don't know who firm those figures are, but they get passed around a lot, as in Everything You Need To Know About Book Sales Figures. So, let's put some bounds on your revenue: $5,000 means you did really well.

Now think about what a lawyer will cost you, because you aren't recovering any meaningful damages without a lawyer. Even if you somehow had a judgment in your favor, that doesn't mean that you automatically get the damages. You just level up to the next fight. So, a decent lawyer in the US charges a couple hundred dollars an hour, and maybe more. Not only that, there's going to be some minimum cost to even get their attention. Typically you get the first hour free (the consultation) and then the clock starts. Everything they do gets clocked. If they send a letter on your behalf, you're paying at least 15 minutes for that. If they read a letter in response, same thing. (Sometimes you'll pay a lot less because there's a different rate for paralegals since they merely needed to be supervised).

So, how many hours does your $5,000 of very good sales buy you? Being generous, let's say you get 25 lawyer-hours out of that, if you spend all of your money. Every one of those hours is 25 books sold, and as an author you'll be overjoyed to sell 10 in a week (that's pretty good). So, every hour of your lawyer's time erases two weeks of good sales for you.

But, you don't want to spend all of your money. You want to spend a lot less. Your lawyer doesn't care past the point where you can pay them, and you probably have to give them a big hunk of money up front. And, they have a line of other people ready to pay them when you decide not to. And, they always get paid no matter what happens to you.

Now, all this changes if there's some way that really big money is involved, such as someone stealing your book, optioning it a movie studio, and that movie getting made. Now there are deep pockets involved and plenty of lawyers willing to risk a little to gain a lot. You get a big settlement, but they take a big portion of it. The incentives shift to the other side. You should be so lucky, and in that case your row is a bit easier to hoe.

  • I discovered after I wrote a story that someone had written one of my plot elements almost exactly in another story, but before I wrote it. I joked that someone had stolen my story before it was even written. ;)
    – DWKraus
    Apr 6, 2021 at 1:02
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    @DWKraus You didn't write The Trouble With Tribbles, did you?? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trouble_with_Tribbles (Joke, although if you're David Gerrold in hiding that would be epic.) Apr 6, 2021 at 10:56

Proof of ownership

If you want proof the text was written by you, you could print it, post it to yourself and keep the envelope unopened. The postage stamp should provide evidence of when you had a complete manuscript. You may even want to send it as a recommended letter.

Maybe having some witnesses certifying in print that you wrote the text might also work.

Or use digital signatures to prove when the document existed. E.g., Proof of Existence and PGP Digital Timestamping Service. If I'd use them, I'd send a password-protected document or ZIP file. Adobe Acrobat also seems to have some form of digital signing you might want to look into.

You might use some backup software to keep older versions of the documents, but backups are designed to limit the size of the backup. I use Rsync for some of my backups and have an archive folder for older versions on a compressed NAS folder. For 1.1 TB of mirrored data, I have archives for two years of approximately 250 GB.

Tracking who did it

I agree with other posters that your only safe bet to prevent your text from getting stolen is to bury it in your drawer... that's a low-risk-low-reward situation... which of course is not rewarding enough, in spite of the risks.

A signed PDF document might be trackable (at least to the guilty party), at least if you sign each document you send out separately and keep track of the information of the signature (date and time, or what else...) But there may be ways to remove the signature (it's probably implemented to verify that the document is valid, rather than providing an identity)... but it could work as a deterrent still...

Otherwise, altering words in the text or adding unique watermarks (can also be done using online services) should make it possible to at least determine who did it.

Another suggestion I've heard is to add a "Copyright Ⓒ" mark in the text even if it's not needed. It might convince some types of people that otherwise would believe the text was ok to spread or sell to not do that...

Beta reading

This may not answer your question, or maybe it does...

When giving your manuscript to beta readers, I suggest using an online service such as BetaBooks or BetaReader. I have not used either but plan to. At least BetaBooks has a price tag that suggests they make more money keeping your text safe than selling it themselves. Here's an in-depth review of both.

Or, how about finding an author out there, maybe someone with similar concerns as you, and cooperate on reading each other's manuscripts? That way it'd be someone that knows how much hard work goes into writing a book, so the likelihood of your work getting stolen is probably lower.

It's likely going to work even better if you've met face to face (ok, maybe not right now, coronavirus and all, but maybe later...) People tend to remember that other people are also people when they have them in front of them...

  • I was expecting something about NFT (esp. given the current hype) Apr 7, 2021 at 16:56
  • What is a "quilty party"? Apr 7, 2021 at 17:12
  • Another way to prove work: instead of manual backups, use a version control software, like Git (git-scm.com), while wtiting, and configure it to use your name and email. Commit yor work into the version control regularly. Then, if asked, show the version control repository: each commit has author, email, and time, plus a hash. One could falsify the entire repository, but it's too much work for stealing a single book. Apr 9, 2021 at 15:46

I would print your work on paper with a watermark (name reviewer on each page). Have the reviewer sign an NDA and ask for the physical version back once done.

Very unpractical and they can always scan it. But it will pose “some” barriers.

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