This is not the topic I had planned for today, but it needs to be addressed. Twice in the last month I have seen the same myth perpetuated. In one case, it was by a successfully published author who should know better. With NaNoWrMo now upon us, many new authors are testing the waters and trying to take whatever advice they can take. This tidbit of false information being spread is going to be in no way helpful to you. In the worst case, it may make you look like a fool to publishers and agents.
What Copyright Isn’t
You need to understand what copyright isn’t before you can understand what it is and how to protect yourself. Copyright isn’t a way to protect your ideas, the facts you’ve uncovered or concepts you have. Just because you have a great idea about a bunch of kids who go to a wizard school and are attacked by an evil sorcerer doesn’t mean you have anything that copyright protects. Copyright is about the execution of your ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Now, if you also wanted to call the protagonist Harry Potter, the school Hogwarts and so on, you would be stepping into what copyright does protect.
So while your idea isn’t protected, how you bring that idea to life is. Your own unique take is what will make or break the story idea. By and large, no one is looking to steal your idea anyway. Doing so is far too risky. Most authors go out of their way to avoid hearing the ideas of fans for reasons mentioned in my commentary on fanfiction. Agents and Editors aren’t looking to steal it either.
When Copyright begins
When you actually write the story, poem, novel or other work, the product of that work is already protected by copyright law. Registering your copyright will make sure disputes are more quickly resolved, but if you are going through traditional publishing, your publisher will handle that and having registered it yourself just comes across as amateur.
Why the Registered Mail Myth Fails
This means, sending your idea to yourself in the mail is utterly worthless. Sending your full manuscript to yourself through registered mail though is what most of the ill-informed are pushing as the poor man’s copyright registration. It seems like a great idea, but it falls flat on two counts. First is the fact that the law doesn’t recognize it as a valid option. Only a legally purchased registered copyright is accepted in a court of law.
“That’s not fair!” I can already hear some of you crying out. Well, perhaps not, but it makes sense in light of the second reason it doesn’t work. US Postal services don’t require you to seal an envelope to send it. You are perfectly free to mail yourself an empty, unsealed envelope through the registered mail system. You could easily send yourself one of these envelopes every few months, then turn around and type out copies of recent books to put in them. Just because it is dated from years prior and has never been opened doesn’t mean the contents have been there the whole time.
So yeah. Registered mail as copyright protection is a huge myth. Don’t bother and don’t spread the foolish notion around. I often wonder just how many people have a false sense of security from this. If people are going to steal your work, it is generally someone trying to pass the finished product off as their own on Amazon. In that situation, you have your copyright clearly shown regardless.