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Protecting Your Copyright

Updated on December 21, 2009

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (1886) guarantees copyright from the moment your writings have been embedded into a tangible medium. Since 1988, when the United States and the United Kingdom finally implemented the treaty, authors have enjoyed almost worldwide copyright-protection without having to formally register their works.

The trouble with unregistered works

While unregistered literary works enjoy the same legal protection as registered works in theory, this is not necessarily the case in practice. Imagine that some rogue element – say, a dishonest literary agent, a crooked employee at Kinko’s, or a postal worker – decided to take possession of your unregistered manuscript and have it published as their own. Once you found out about it, such as if a publisher turned you down with reference to the striking similarity between your story and a previously published book, what would you do? Write a “cease and desist” letter? Sue?

What it boils down to in practice is that you must prove that you wrote the story before the purported author could have written it. In case of an unregistered manuscript, this could entail evidence such as:

- You presenting evidence (like draft manuscripts) and testifying in court;

- Your friends and family saying that they’ve read your manuscript repeatedly over the years;

- A literary expert testifying that the published story, if not copied ad verbatim, is essentially the same as yours – i.e. a thinly veiled unlawful copy;

- A sealed, self-addressed envelope with the manuscript sent years ago.

If you published your story online or made it available in some other digital format like an email attachment, you would want to present meta data showing when the files were generated.

The trouble with all of the above methods is that they aren’t foolproof. Some authors do lie in court for financial gain, as do the friends and families of some authors. A literary expert may be able to convince the court that the two stories are identical, but proving who wrote it first is far more difficult. With the computing power and software available today, “old draft manuscripts” can be generated in a matter of hours. Meta data can easily be manipulated.

Add to this mix an unscrupulous opponent and clever attorney, and you might well lose the court battle. Even if you ultimately prevail, you will likely have suffered serious financial harm due to lost income and legal expenses.

The benefits of registration

Registering your unpublished manuscript does not prove that it was you who wrote it, only that you had possession at the time of registration. Since this priority date becomes irrefutable in court, anyone claiming your manuscript to be theirs would have to prove that they wrote the story before you did, which in practice would be virtually impossible. To enjoy these benefits, we recommend that you use a registration method that will definitely stand up in court. is available if you would like to register your work without paying anything. Once you have registered and uploaded your files, they will send you an email containing a unique “digital fingerprint” for your copyright protected manuscript. Due to the potential difficulties of using digital fingerprints as definitive proof in courts around the world, this private service is best suited for protecting weblog posts, articles, and other works of limited commercial value.

Affordable registration with the US Copyright Office is available to American authors and publishers, and some other countries offer similar services. The Copyright Registration Service of the Intellectual Property Rights Service – an independent, non-governmental organization – offers affordable, reliable registration to authors worldwide. Instant online registration is available, and you will have the option to order a CD or DVD with a certified copy of the registered work.


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