How to Protect Your Work (Hint: You Don’t Need to)

Recently an aspiring writer reached out to me with the age-old question that can be summarized as follows:

How do I stop someone from stealing my idea?

 

I have noticed this fear of theft is only shared by aspiring writers, a writer’s loved ones, and some readers. What do they all have in common? A lack of information.

I don’t know a single professional author who worries about their ideas being stolen.

Why? Because the moment you put pen to paper, you own the story. There is no need to copyright a book before its publication. Don’t believe me? Take this excerpt from BookBaby, which is the same advice I’ve received from my agent and CPA:

From the moment your words are written on paper or saved to a digital file, your work becomes protected under intellectual property law. It doesn’t require any formal registration. The very foundation of copyrighting a book begins with you, the author, as you embark on the creative process of writing.

Let’s move beyond the legal element. Novels about writers stealing each other’s work have become popular as of late (see example A and example B, both of which are excellent novels), but the reality is such a thing rarely happens in real life. Most professional writers have more ideas than we know what to do with, and we simply have no interest in stealing someone else’s. We don’t need to; we have enough skill and creativity to produce our own work. There’s no joy in taking someone else’s writing and repackaging it as your own.

But what about fellow aspiring writers, you ask? As you all know from experience, it can take years, PLURAL, to write an entire book. Multiple years is a long time! Any person willing to devote two years to a project is not someone who’s going to steal another writer’s book. And for the ne’er-do-wells looking to get rich “quick,” they would need to steal your entire text, not just the idea—because a mere idea is not going to get them a book deal. As I previously mentioned, your text is copyrighted the minute you put pen to paper, so you need not worry about it being stolen verbatim. (Side note: anyone attempting to get rich quick via the publishing industry is not much of a brainiac, so I wouldn’t worry.)

Understand that ideas are not copyrightable—only the text itself is. Take my examples A and B from above. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz and Yellowface by R.F. Kuang begin with the same premise: A struggling writer steals the work of another (dead) writer and pawns it off as their own. Does that mean one of these authors stole the idea from the other? Absolutely not. See how two writers can take identical starting points and end up in very different places? There are no truly original plots left, but there are near endless variations in how stories are told.

All of this is to say: please don’t be needlessly protective of your work. No one wants to steal it, and that attitude has a whiff of the amateurish. If you bring these concerns to an agent or someone else in the industry that you’re hoping to impress, at best you sound naive and uninformed. At worst, you sound egotistical.

This post was originally published on my Substack. You can read it here.