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If you don’t copyright your ms …

Another thing I picked up while auditing a publishing course over the break was the statement by an instructor that “If you don’t copyright your manuscript, it is in the public domain.”

Obviously, this is incorrect on a number of levels, and again illustrates how difficult copyright law is to understand even for people who are professional writers and teachers of publishing (ie outside of law schools).

But I’m interested in how many things the sentence could actually mean, for instance:

1/ If you don’t affix a copyright notice on your work, people may not think you mind if they borrow from it without attribution.  (Either you won’t sue for infringement or you are intending to grant an implied license for others to use the work for any purposes.)

2/ If you don’t register your copyright work, you will have more trouble asserting your copyright in court and will want to register before you commence infringement proceedings.

Anything else it could mean?

6 thoughts on “If you don’t copyright your ms …”

  1. Wasn’t the instructor obviously making a wrong, out-of-date, statement of US copyright law, deriving from the way it was pre-1976? (i.e. it would have been correct if the law hadn’t changed since then, but is now very obsolete).

    That is, rather than being a garbled version of current law, it was simply a straightforward stating of what was the case under much older law.

  2. Actually it’s not even a correct statement of the law under the 1909 Act — you didn’t need to register the work right away, it just had to have a notice on it upon publication. Washingtonian Publ’g Co. v. Pearson, 306 U.S. 30 (1939). Washingtonian involved a delay of only 14 months, but Nimmer suggests that the 1909 Act requirement to “promptly” register was effectively empty of content.

    I think the tenacity of statements like the instructors is an indication of the desperate search among the public for clear, simple rules about copyright, even if they work to individual authors’ disadvantage.

  3. There is a third possibility, and it’s the one that the MFA-trained-writing-instructor/student believes:

    (3) If you don’t put a copyright notice on the manuscript, some editor or agent might steal your ideas and give them to someone else who will either work cheaper than you or is a lazy celebrity-author in need of ideas.

    This is laughable to those of us “sophisticated” in intellectual property law. It is entirely plausable to much of the “unsophisticated” author community… which, nonetheless, has heard of “idea theft” cases in Hollywood and (not unreasonably) applied a similar meme to draft manuscripts. Then, too, there’s the whole nonsense of “WGA registration” that percolates backward and forward into writing workshops.

    The sad, contrary reality is that:
    (a) no credible agent/editor will steal ideas, if stealing ideas is even possible
    (b) in some fields of writing (“literary” fiction in particular), the copyright notice on a manuscript is considered The Mark of the Amateurtm, and a vague insult to the editor/agent and sign of an author who will be difficult to work with
    (c) it’s not that difficult to exclude noncredible agents/editors from one’s submissions… but that requires actual research of a kind not taught in writing programs

    Final snarky aside: At least this isn’t a discussion of “poor man’s copyright.” Yet.

  4. Registration and Renewal – a trap for the unwary – see: heirs of Phillip K Dick vs the makers of the movie The Adjustment Bureau

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