How to Protect Your Copyright

Saul Bottcher & Nas Hedron,—Updated 5 July 2013

Note: This article is provided as general information and is not intended as legal advice. If you have questions about your individual legal situation, please consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction.

Copyright is like the lock on your front door: you can leave it open if you like, but eventually somebody will walk away with your stuff. Being diligent about protecting your copyright is an important part of securing your future income.

This article describes some measures you can take to protect your copyright. We also touch on casual infringement and explain how to personalize your copyright messages to get your point across while remaining reader-friendly.

Establish Authorship and Date of Publication

In the event that your copyright is ever questioned in court, you’ll need believable evidence showing your authorship and the date of publication.

Depending on the country where you publish, there are different procedures for establishing authorship and publication date. Some countries have national copyright registries, while others recommend you deposit a copy with a lawyer or mail one to yourself by registered mail and leave the envelope unopened.

See our article Copyright 101 For Indie Authors for the appropriate registration process for your country.

Include a Copyright Notice

Under the Berne Convention, you are not required to include a copyright notice to secure your copyright. However, it costs nothing to include one, and there are several benefits:

A typical copyright notice looks like this (though there are several valid forms):

© 2013 Jane Doe

Here is a template for a copyright notice accompanied by a personal message:

© 2013 Jane Doe
Dear Reader: By selling copies of this book, I earn the income necessary to fund the writing of future books. If you have obtained this book for free and you find you enjoy it, please consider purchasing a copy so that I can bring you more of my work in the future.

You should be aware that no matter how touching and sincere your personal message might be, you will still experience person-to-person copying of your book. Your personal message is an inexpensive way to influence a small minority of readers, and is therefore worthwhile, but it’s not a solve-all.

Maximize the Availability of Your Book

One of the reasons that people infringe copyright by downloading free copies of your book is because your book is either unavailable or very difficult for them to purchase.

By maximizing the availability of your book, you avoid creating a difficult situation for honest fans of your work, and you remove an incentive for casual infringement.

While respecting the boundaries of any business or legal arrangements you’ve made, you should try to do the following:

The first time you address these points, it will take some effort, and you may be underwhelmed by the numer of sales you receive from smaller channels. However, you will find it much easier to repeat the process for subsequent works, and even a few sales will compensate you for the time and effort required.

Make a Decision on DRM

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is an umbrella term for anti-copying systems built into some e-reading systems. When you publish your e-book, some sellers allow you to choose whether or not to activate DRM.

DRM has limited effectiveness. It will prevent casual copying by a non-technical person, but most DRM technology is easily defeated by a tech-savvy person. DRM also carries the disadvantage that it can interfere with legitimate uses of an e-book or e-reading system, making the reading experience worse for your paying customers.

The debate over DRM is heated, but the overall trend is moving away from DRM. It has never been proven to be a net positive for sales or revenue, but its ability to create frustration for legitimate customers is well-established.

Before you publish, make sure you’ve thought through the implications of activating or not activating DRM on your book.

Have a Clear Stance on Fan-Made Derivative Works

The sharing of fan fiction, tribute art, and other fan-made derivative works has become commonplace on the internet. These activities are usually non-commercial. On rare occasions, fans may attempt to profit from derivative works, often because they are not aware of the fact that this is an infringement of your copyright.

Some authors dislike fan-made works. These authors may feel that the fan-made works misrepresents their original work, that their creative control is eroded, or that fans should be concentrating on developing their own original ideas.

Other authors view fan-made work as a positive. These authors may feel that fan-made works expose the author’s original work to new audiences, that fan-made works allow fans to be a part of the author’s work, or that fan-made works strengthen the connection between the author and their audience.

Whatever your stance on fan-made works, the important thing is to make it clear up front. Your fans are lay people, not copyright experts, and many of them may not understand your rights or realize that their actions are infringements.

You might choose to include a statement such as the following:

To my readers: While I am flattered that many of you choose to create your own stories, illustrations, and other work featuring my characters and universe, I respectfully ask that you do not distribute these works over the internet. It is important to me that I maintain creative control over the ideas in my books and that there is no confusion as to the canon of my books. By all means, share these works among your close friends and family. But please refrain from posting them publicly. To develop as an artist or writer, you should focus on creating your own original work and sharing that with the world.

Or, to express the opposite stance:

To my readers: I am flattered that many of you choose to create your own stories, illustrations, and other work featuring my characters and universe. I invite you to share these works freely over the internet and with the public, but I respectfully ask that you include a reference to my name and the title of the book whenever you share them. I also ask that you do not use these works for commercial gain, either by selling them or by including them in advertising for any business. If you are an established creator who would like to collaborate on a creative project, or if you would like to license my work for commercial purposes, please contact me to discuss it personally.

Either of these notices can be combined with the personal copyright notice discussed above to create a complete and personal statement about your rights.

Treat Contracts With Care

As a rule, you should have a lawyer review any contract before you sign it. You should also scrutinize the contract yourself and do your best to understand how it operates.

License-Based Contracts

When you work with business partners, such as distributors, promoters, and service providers, it is common to sign a contract that grants them a license to work with your copyrighted material in the course of delivering their services.

When you sign a contract that grants a license to another party, look for the following:

This is not an exhaustive list. Have your lawyer review each clause of a contract to make sure you are properly protected.

Assignment-Based Contracts

In traditional publishing, it was common to “assign” (transfer) most of your rights to the publisher for the full duration of the copyright. This allowed them to exclusively profit from your economic rights, while paying you a percentage royalty on their sales.

By assigning your rights to another party, you give up control over the details of how the book is published and promoted. For instance, most authors working with traditional publishers would have little or no say regarding cover art, retail price, or number of copies printed.

For an independent author, this type of contract is inappropriate. None of your service providers should be asking for an assignment-based contract, because it would give them power they don't need, and deprive you of your creative and business control. If a service provider proposes an assigment-based contract, you should strongly question their reasons for doing so.

As always, a lawyer can help you to protect yourself by reviewing and explaining the full impact of any contract you are considering signing.

Treat Work-For-Hire With Care

Work-for-hire is a legal arrangement in which creative works that you create while performing your duties for an employer become the property of your employer, meaning that you lose your economic rights to those works.

Work-for-hire can be a problem in a number of circumstances:

Before publishing any work, you should have a clear understanding of your work-for-hire status, and ensure that you will have clear ownership of your copyright. Check your local laws and employment contract, and consult with a lawyer as necessary.

For maximum protection, you can ask your employer to sign a document stating that your book is not a work-for-hire, and that they waive any claim to the copyright of your book. Most employers should have no objection to such a document, assuming it has been properly prepared by a lawyer.

If your book is unrelated to your work and you have never worked on your book while on-duty or on-premises, you probably don’t need to go to these lengths, but it’s best to consult a lawyer to be sure.

Secure Licenses for Included Content

Most books incorporate the creative work of other people, such as cover art, illustrations, interior design, or quoted texts or lyrics.

To protect the copyright of your own work, you should ensure that you have secured the necessary licenses (or copyright transfers) to fully clear your use of the materials you have incorporated. (A discussion of licensing details is beyond the scope of this article. Please speak to an intellectual property lawyer to determine what is needed.)

If you fail to secure licenses, you risk a number of complications, including having to re-issue your book, being sued for infringement or royalties, or having your public reputation damaged.

Do you have a question about protecting your copyright?
E-mail us at and we’ll help you find the answer.