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Why I tell writers not to get too excited about copyright.

November 7th, 2011 . by Peggy

There are reasonable privacy precautions to take when you start a publishing project. But don’t obsess over the stuff that doesn’t matter.

Almost every Author comes to me with a lot of fear (read: baggage from bad stories they’ve heard or imagined) about “copyright” and the possibility of people stealing their stuff.┬áIn all 12+ years I’ve worked as an editor, I’ve only seen two Authors who have lost anything because they didn’t sign the proper contracts. Neither were clients of mine, but they came to me for advice after such a thing happened. One was a case involving a divorce, (yeah, like I’m going to get involved in *that*!) and the second was a business partner that wasn’t happy and split, taking the IP (Intellectual Property) with her to market on her own. I’ve seen many, many more people throw around their IP without any protection at all, and never had anything happen. From what I’ve witnessed in my own businesses and those of my husband, disputes over ownership of content are very rare and usually involve something much more complicated, like an ugly divorce or the breakup of a business. It seems to become less common as technology advances, as it’s easier than ever to simply show a date stamp on a document and prove that we thought of it first.

All written works are protected by default copyright laws in Canada, the USA, and most of Europe, as per the Berne Convention. As it states on Wikipedia,

In all countries where the Berne Convention standards apply, copyright is automatic, and need not be obtained through official registration with any government office. Once an idea has been reduced to tangible form, for example by securing it in a fixed medium (such as a drawing, sheet music, photograph, a videotape, or a computer file), the copyright holder is entitled to enforce his or her exclusive rights.

In other words, as long as you can prove that you were the originator of the work (old files, notes, printouts with your edit marks, etc.) then you’re pretty safe in a general sense. The thing is, if you catch someone stealing your stuff, you would still need to prove it, and take it to court to be compensated in any way. (Although usually the threat to sue is enough to make people hold off.) The only benefit of actual copyright registration is that if you sue, you can sue for more money, and in different ways. But you’d still have to decide if it was worth it to fork out money for a lawyer in the first place.

When should you worry about copyright? In the music community, it’s a popular theme and debate. I’m not saying that theft doesn’t happen, because of course it does. And nothing I say here on this website replaces the advice of a good lawyer. But if worrying about this is stopping from creatively progressing with your work, I think you need to pause and consider if there’s a real issue, or an imagined one.

Now on the other hand, a smart and cheap way to give everyone a little more comfort is to sign an NDA, or non-disclosure agreement. I paid a lawyer to write mine, which you can now download by clicking the linked image at the top of this article. (Feel free to steal this and re-work it for your own evil purposes.)

What does this NDA do?

- It says that you promise not to steal my ideas about editing / technology / marketing, and I promise not to steal your ideas about your content.

- It says that you can’t circumvent me and go to one of my suppliers without paying me, nor I to your suppliers.

- It says that we’re both bound to do this equally. This contract doesn’t make a distinction between you or I, and so it doesn’t favour any one party.

- It says that we both agree to do this for 5 years, for a variety of projects in that time. (You don’t need to sign one for each of the 5 books on which you’re working.)

- It says that this NDA does not constitute a contract to do work, and that we’re just agreeing not to steal from each other.

So, to whom should you send this document? Certainly your editor, because we know all your secrets. And possibly any consultants that you hire to work on the project, and your graphic designer. And anybody that you ask for input as you develop your ideas. But that’s about it. You would not ask early reviewers and potential distributors, for example. In the first place, you want to be really nice to those people, and in the second place, they’re not interested in stealing anything anyway. Not that asking people to sign an NDA isn’t nice, but it can put some people on the defensive.

It’s not that your stuff isn’t worth stealing – I’m sure it is. But it seems we’re all too worried about our own ideas being stolen to worry about stealing anyone else’s.

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