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How Writers Protect Their Work
"Raymond will be noticed...Forgetting English reminds us why we read new writers.” -- Mark Kramer, Harvard University
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In nearly every class or seminar I’ve ever taught, and with many of my clients as well, the question of copyright comes up, mostly in the context of How can I be sure no one steals my work? Despite one obscure author’s recent claims that Stephenie Meyer plagiarized her novel, this does not happen very often — and when plagiarism does happen, it usually involves the lifting of entire passages. Mere ideas are generally not copyrightable — nor are titles, by the way — and, in this case, claiming that a wedding and a sex-on-the-beach scene are off limits to all other writers seems a little bit of a stretch.

But, naturally, all writers feel protective of their work. I had one client, in fact, who was so protective of his idea that he wanted to self-publish his book and distribute it discreetly in order to prevent anyone from ripping it off. This was not a great idea. Among the reasons why: first, if you want to publish a book, it’s usually because you want people to read it — hence, you want to sell it to more than a few readers you deem trustworthy. But more important than that, your best defense against plagiarism is actually wide distribution. Get it out there with your name on it, and it’s that much harder for anyone else to claim it as theirs.

When students ask if they need to register their work with U.S. Copyright Office, I assure them it’s not necessary. As the copyright office itself makes clear, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” So while it can’t hurt to register it, that’s a lot of time and energy you might want to spend revising or submitting instead.

Another issue of concern to many writers is that their ideas will be poached by someone in their workshop or writers’ group. The writer Gina Barreca addressed this in a recent blog post, Should You Discuss Your Work in Progress?, about discovering that someone else was apparently putting together a book very much like the one she was working on.

I remember having a similar experience years ago, while leading a fiction workshop. I’d read a student short story that had a description in it that was almost exactly like one I’d recently (and independently) created in a piece of my own. My work was unpublished and hadn’t been seen by more than a couple of readers, but still, I worried that if and when it ever did make its way out into the world, there would be ten writers who’d seen this other story before mine and would think I was a plagiarist.

Then I realized that if two writers could come up with a description that was so similar, no matter how lovely the image may have been, I would need to do better. And so my solution was to rewrite the passage entirely, which did the trick. The lazy part of me hadn’t wanted to change it, but in the end it made for better writing…and avoided any possible perception of similarity.

On the same subject, I’m often asked whether magazine editors might try to steal submitters’ work; quite a few writers are worried about submitting their stories, essays, and poems because of this. As an editor myself, I tell them I couldn’t even conceive of stealing another writer’s work — not only is it morally wrong, it’s simply unimaginative. And I believe that most editors feel the same way; while I’ve seen this happen in other creative fields (such as advertising) I’ve never known this to happen at a literary magazine. And again, your best protection is to get your work out there — so submit to several publications at once, if the guidelines allow it. Knowing that yours is a simultaneous submission will likely prevent even a sneaky editor from adopting your work.

And finally: Should you include your name and copyright symbol (©) on submitted work? For an overwhelming majority of editors and agents, this is a big pet peeve (it’s considered amateurish) — so I advise writers not to do it. Remember, your work is automatically copyrighted, so to use the symbol is a bit of overkill.

I think I’ve covered most of the Big Questions I get about this sort of thing — but if you have any questions or comments, let me know. I love mail.

© 2009 Midge Raymond

(Just kidding.)


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