Posted by: Kerry Gans | September 4, 2012

Why NOT to Formally Copyright Your Work

First, let’s be clear: your work is protected by copyright the moment you save it or print it. Period. You do not need to register it formally with the Copyright Office to receive this protection of your intellectual property. Copyright lawyer Brad Frazer lays out the basics of copyright law for writers in this post. Very clearly, there are advantages to formally registering copyright.

However, when I read that article, I swore that someone had once told me that if you want to pursue traditional publishers you should NOT formally copyright your manuscript before submitting.

In search of this elusive source, I asked the Twitter community #MyWANA if they had ever heard this. I got a collective “Why wouldn’t you register it?” I began to think I had imagined or misheard this advice.

Then, in the Willow Grove Writer’s Coffeehouse last month, someone asked “Should you copyright your manuscript before submitting?” And leader of the Coffeehouse Jonathan Maberry replied that you should NOT formally register your manuscript if you want traditional publishers to look at it. In fact, part of the publisher’s job is to formally register copyright for it in your name.

Jonathan is not a copyright lawyer, but he is one of the most business-savvy authors I know, and he is usually correct in his business advice. So when he told me that his business contacts said that traditional publishers will not look at your work if they know it is registered for copyright, I listened. I asked him to elaborate on why he advises this.

Jonathan said that there are two reasons traditional publishers do not usually handle formally registered works.

1)     They cannot then claim to have printed the first edition.

2)     They open themselves up to having a competing work put out.

The first published edition, as every bibliophile knows, is where the gold is. A first edition of pretty much any book is intrinsically worth more than any other printing. If you have formally registered your work, the publisher cannot legally claim to have the first printed edition—the first edition would be the one registered with the Copyright Office.

The second reason publishers dislike formally copyrighted works is because it in theory opens them up to having competing editions out at the same time. For example, if you retain your ebook rights or audio book rights, the publisher only has rights to the paper version they print. Since you own the copyright on a slightly different version, you could, in theory, release that as an ebook or audiobook, undermining print sales. Although I believe most contracts would forestall that with their boilerplate non-compete clause, it is a possibility.

Of course, there are always exceptions to prove any rule. A traditional publisher did not hesitate to pick up 50 Shades of Grey, even though that clearly was already registered. As Jonathan pointed out, when you’re set to make a gazillion dollars on a book, having the first edition claim doesn’t matter all that much.

So what do you think? Do traditional publishers reject manuscripts that are already formally registered? Has Jonathan received good or bad advice on this front? What have your experiences been?


  1. I’ve also read in several places that you should not register your book at a copyright office if you want publishers to buy it. So for me, I haven’t done it. Curious to hear what others have to say on the subject, though.


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