Book publishing Self-publishing

How to copyright a book or novel (and keep to fair use)

Understanding how to copyright your novel and navigate issues such as fair use and requirements for referencing other works will help you avoid IP theft and other trouble.

Knowing how to copyright a book or novel (and whether registration is necessary) protects your work. Keeping to fair use yourself will also help you avoid the stress of legal action over your own creative work.

  1. Understand what copyright is
  2. Familiarize yourself with fair use
  3. Make sure your publishers are legit
  4. Follow official copyright registration process
  5. Get legal advice if needed

Let’s dive in:

The word ‘copyright’ says it all. Copyright is the right to copy (and in so doing distribute or profit from) a created work.

As the Science Fiction Writer’s of America’s excellent article on copyright puts it:

Copyright, literally, is “the right to copy.” It guarantees the authors of creative works–including books, stories, artworks, films, recordings, and photographs–the exclusive right for a set period of time to copy and distribute the work, or allow others to do so, by whatever means and in whatever media currently exist. It also prohibits copying and distributing without the author’s permission.

‘Copyright’, SFWA, page updated 12/26/21

As the SFWA’s guide clarifies, for rights stemming from your copyright:

  • You may grant or invoke them (the latter if you have not given permission to reproduce your work)
  • You may allocate them to another individual or company (a publishing contract will confer rights to distribute, market or otherwise copy your work for a defined period and purpose)

In the USA, UK and much of Europe, copyright covers the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years.

In other countries that are signatories to the Berne convention (a global agreement protecting artists’ rights that was codified in 1886 in Berne, Switzerland), the term is life plus 50 years after the artist’s death.

Copyright in ancient times - Richard Stallman quote

2. Familiarize yourself with fair use

This article arose from a discussion with an editing client. The discussion concerned using song lyrics in stories, and what was considered fair use.

Before you query your manuscript, alter any derivative aspect of your story that ‘fair use’ does not allow.

What is fair use?

‘Fair use’ describes the limited cases in which parts of copyrighted media may be reused. For example, lines of a song quoted in a music review on a website such as Pitchfork.

If copyright has expired, and work is in the public domain, you’re able to ‘remix’ and adapt it more freely (hence Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

If the copyright has not expired, you need to seek permission to use part of a work. Certain categories, such as teaching materials, criticism or parody, tend to allow more leeway.

For example, for lyrics by a specific songwriter, you would need permission from the publisher or rights holder for the songs in question (and this permission can be expensive and only cover a limited number of print copies).

Maria Riegger has an excellent article on how to request permission to quote song lyrics.

Elements of books, novels and other media that are copyright exempt in many cases include:

  • Book, song and story titles (though this depends on your country’s legislation, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s guidebook Managing Intellectual Property in the Book Publishing Industry)
  • ‘Stock’ characters that are so widely used that they are impossible to claim as a single author’s creation (for example, an ‘orphan hero’ in fantasy or sci-fi)

You can trademark a title for a series of books, as author Faleena Hopkins tried to do over the word ‘cocky’ in her indie romance series. This did spark strong critical opinions. It is maybe advisable to work under the principle ‘there’s enough to go around for everyone’ rather than risk a reputation for being litigious in a frivolous way among writers with clout (especially if said clout and their reach is larger than your own).

If you reference work covered by copyright, it is best to do your homework. Know beyond doubt whether derivative elements in your story qualify as fair use.

Some helpful resources for this complex legal issue in writing:

Fair use in novels and books: Resources

Howard G Zaharoff’s older but useful breakdown of the standards used to determine fair use.

Rich Stim’s short piece for Stanford Libraries on fair use where he discusses forms typically exempt from copyright such as commentary and criticism.

The University of Melbourne’s detailed guide to copyright as it pertains to publishing contracts.

3. Make sure your publishers are legit

Professional publishers typically ensure any manuscript they accept will not run the risk of copyright claims against their business.

Fan fiction is a legal landmine due to how heavily it usually borrows from registered or trademarked books and other media.

A reputable publisher would not typically offer you money for fan fiction. [There has been occasional confusion between Now Novel and newer businesses that offer to ‘sign’ aspiring fan fiction writers for paltry advances due to brand name similarities].

If you are going the indie route, it is all the more important to know your rights and responsibilities.

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To register for copyright protection, the required steps differ according to each country’s legal handling of copyright registration.

In the US, for example, the U.S. Copyright Office oversees registration (you can now also apply for group registration of shorter digital works).

Writer Kate Lahey over on Twitter provided some useful further nuance to the discussion:

In the UK, how do you register books for copyright? The answer is that there isn’t a copyright register in the UK. Your work is automatically copyrighted upon creation, according to the linked official government source above.

This is the same in Australia, though organizations such as the Australian Copyright Council provide training on understanding and protecting your rights as a creator.

Although this resource is angled more towards publishers, the World Intellectual Property Organization has a useful guidebook (also linked above) covering issues pertaining to copyright in publishing.

The guide’s explanation of copyright terminology and use of case studies should help you understand the intricacies involved.

Quote on copyright and public domain by David Shields

The SFWA provides useful advice on when to copyright your book in the article linked under ‘Understand what copyright is’ above.

They suggest not copyrighting unpublished work. Like the SFWA, we are often asked at Now Novel, ‘but what if my work is stolen?’

As the SFWA shares, theft of pre-published work is ‘vanishingly rare’. It is Now Novel’s ten-year anniversary in 2022, and in all these years we have never received any report of material theft by any member (and you keep copyright of anything you share for critique per our terms and conditions).

For peace of mind, save a read-only or write-protected version of your document that shows the file’s creation date in file properties.

Unless someone can furnish an earlier version, you have evidence you wrote it first.

The five stars are for the comprehensive range of topics and materials but also particularly for the commitment and involvement of the Now Novel team. A great feature of the site is the community of aspiring writers. — Mark B

Read more reviews on:

For peace of mind, seek legal advice on any legal aspect of your story you are unsure about.

Use platforms such as Quora to ask questions, too (you will find many published authors and legal professionals actively answering questions).

Our monthly writing webinars are also a great place to ask coaches and editors questions. Get answers to questions on writing craft, copyright and more. If we don’t have an immediate answer, we’ll do our utmost to follow up.

Do you have a point or question you’d like to add to this discussion? Please share it in the comments.

Connect with other writers for mutual critique and learn and grow together, and get feedback, outlining tools and monthly webinars when you join a Now Novel plan.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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