Copyrights and Meteorites

Do I need to Copyright my unpublished manuscript?


No? Won’t an editor steal it?

No. Editors don’t steal. That’s a myth. And, unfortunately, many new writers believe it.

Think about it. How would stealing a manuscript benefit an editor? If he doesn’t like the story, there’s no reason to steal. If he does like the story enough to publish it, what advantage would he get from stealing? Saving the cost of paying you? If the magazine pays in copies, all he’s saving is postage. If the magazine pays cash, the money is already budgeted for that story. Why risk your reputation over money you were planning to spend anyway?

And if an editor did steal stories, word would get around. Top authors would stop sending anything. Without top authors, the quality of the magazine would drop. As quality drops, so does circulation. Very soon, an editor who stole stories would be out of business, with no one willing to hire her (would you hire a thief?).

Maybe they’ll print it with the name of a famous author to boost sales.

Nope. First of all, do you really think a big-name author would allow that to happen? If a magazine put, say, John Grisham’s name on your story, Grisham’s attorneys would be on the line within a week.

Besides, names don’t make that much of a difference to a magazine. They get plenty of big names just in the course of doing business — legitimate stories from these people. Also, a big name on the cover doesn’t make that much of a difference except for newsstand sales, which, for most fiction magazines, are not a major source of income (most magazines lose money on newsstand sales).

In addition, one of the joys of editing is discovering a new author. Editors are delighted when they can publish someone for the first time.

OK, so they may not steal my story. What if they steal my ideas?

Editors don’t buy ideas; they buy stories and articles.

Ideas are a dime a gross; there isn’t a person walking the street who can’t come up with an idea that could potentially make a first-rate story. It’s the execution of that idea that makes a story. A brilliant idea is worthless if the story is poorly written, with weak characters and no plot. Similarly, some excellent stories have been written from very unimpressive ideas.

Since the chances are quite good that someone thought up an idea similar to yours independently, you can’t depend on ideas to succeed as a writer. You need to know how to write.

In any case, all this doesn’t matter. You can’t Copyright an idea, just its expression. Even if someone did steal an idea, Copyright wouldn’t protect you.

But I’ve heard about people suing publishers for stealing their stories?

Those stories involve either movie studios or songwriters; things are different in Hollywood. And in the vast majority of these, the cases are thrown out of court. Why? Because these were all groundless. Whenever a movie or song becomes successful, people come out of the woodwork and try to cash in.

Also, most people complain about people stealing their ideas and, as I mentioned, ideas aren’t Copyrightable.

But that’s Hollywood. It is not book or magazine publishing. In sixteen years of writing fiction professionally I have never heard of an editor taking a submitted story and stealing it. Never. It just does not happen.

I’m still concerned. How do I know I won’t be the first?

If you’re not going to trust the editor not to steal your story, why are you going to trust her to publish it?

Publishing is based on trust. The editor trusts that you haven’t stolen the story from someone else, for instance (plagiarized submissions considerably outnumber those stolen by editors). As an author, you are expected to keep your word to the editor. And vice versa. Nearly all editors do.

Still, it can’t hurt to get Copyright, can it?

Yes, it can. It can hurt your pocketbook, and it can hurt your chances of getting a story published.

Pocketbook issues first. It costs money to register a Copyright. (By the way, you do have some Copyright protection from the moment you create a story, whether you register it or not. You cannot sue for damages, but you can prevent anyone from publishing without permission.) The last I checked, it cost $20. Now if you don’t sell the story, this isn’t very cost-effective. The same if you sell to a market that pays in copies. If you write twenty stories a year, you will have to earn over $400 from sales to pay for Copyright costs. That’s $400 a year for the equivalent of meteorite insurance. Is that worth it? I’d rather spend that money on postage or books or new computer equipment or even a night at the theater. I make little enough money writing as it to waste it on nonessentials.

Also, if you do Copyright a story, technically, you are required to include a Copyright notice. This has to indicate the date of Copyright. Now, suppose an editor sees a story of yours with the line “Copyright © 1988.” His first thought will be “This story hasn’t sold in nine years?” Not a good first impression.*

What should I do, then?

What all professional writers do: send your stories off without worrying about theft. The publisher will Copyright the story when they buy it; let them deal with it. There are too many other problems facing a writer to have to worry about meteorites.

For a look at Copyright law, you can go to the Copyright Office Website