Friday, August 31, 2012

Protecting Your Work--What You Need to Know about Making Sure Your Writing Stays Yours

Patricia has taken my online class and read my book, You Book Starts Here. She wrote me last week with a good question about how to protect her work.

"While I have had my ups and downs over the years, since I took your class and started using your framework, I am finally creating some work I am willing to share" she said.  "In that vein I have been investigating some of the social network sites that allow for feedback and submissions.  The sites have been clear about the work submitted not falling into the 'published' category, so that has been addressed. 

"I am wondering, however, if I need to be doing something specific to protect my intellectual property.   

"How do I share my work, get feedback, and give feedback in return through social networks, and protect my words?  I have no idea what to do to make sure my intellectual property isn't stolen." 

The three sites Patricia is considering are authonomy by Harper Collins, Scribophile by Turkey Sandwich, and Critique Circle by Dorrance Publishing. 

Formally and Informally Copyrighting Your Work
I learned early on that my work was copyrighted as soon as I wrote it down--a nice bit of time-saving information from a lawyer on our publishing company's staff.  Each and every piece is protected, and I don't need to officially register anything, unless I want to.

I found that my writing-in-progress was not worth the time and effort.  It was going to change again anyway; that was the whole purpose of getting feedback.

But . . . I did have concerns, as Patricia does, so I found an easy solution.  Whenever I sent out material that could be borrowed or stolen, I added an informal copyright notice to the bottom of each page.  There's not much to this-- you just write (c) [year] by [your name], and All Rights Reserved.  Very helpful to writers who are nervous about handing out copies (or electronically publishing copies) of work-in-progress, especially to faceless readers on the Internet. 

The longer I worked as an editor, reading hundreds of writing submissions each week, the more I realized that beginning writers are perhaps overly concerned with this.  It became a red flag about that writer's amateur status to get a manuscript or story plastered with copyright notices.  Editors know that work is already copyrighted when it's written down.  Sufficient protection, if the writer wants it, is to just add the (c) notice to the first page, unobtrusively in the right top corner with name and address.

Realize, too, that editors receive many versions of similar ideas.  You may have experienced the blues of  submitting a story and later seeing one just like it in a publication under someone else's byline.  Likely, it's not your story, reshaped.  It's probably another writer's who was working with the same idea--and pulled it off well enough that the editor bought it.

Internet publishing has made this quite tricky, though.  It's true that work can be published online one minute and borrowed the next. 

So, if you're concerned, add that simple copyright notice to your piece, or imbed a watermark, before you release your words onto the web.

A final idea:  Some writers like to take this a step further and register their published pieces with the U.S. Copyright office (  It costs a little money ($45 at last research) but it definitely gives you added legal recourse if your work is used by another writer. 

Which, in this electronic world, it could well be.

Protection after the Fact
What do you do if you learn your work has been used without your permission--borrowed, stolen, or reworked? 

First, start a search on Copyscape Plagarism Checker,
Type in your URL (of your website or blog where the piece was published, for example) and copyscape searches for duplication of the content.  When I searched for my blog, for example, eleven sites came up that had used material from my posts.  Most of them cited the source, which makes it fine by me--and free publicity.  Those that didn't are approached via the DMCA. 

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a good resource for writers to fight back and protect their writing.  It can even help you get "borrowed" material--articles, posts, even book manuscripts--removed from the web.  Start by logging on to and filing a complaint. 

Protecting Your Writing from Other Writers--Sharing Circles and Writers Groups
We all have choices about sharing our writing.  I am careful.  I check out sites such as Scribophile before I share anything I really care about.  I know I could keep my writing close to home and never get feedback, but I need feedback to grow.  So I use discrimination, asking around, as Patricia is doing.

I also realize that story ideas are easy to come by and freely circulate.  It's my personal writing voice, my uniqueness, that shouldn't be used by anyone else.  This is why ideas and information are not copyrightable.  They are not unique enough, usually.  But your writing style, your voice, your pace, the way you arrange your thoughts--is.

So when you join a sharing site, be aware that spreading of ideas in most writers groups is pretty common.  Your buddies may read your scene of a fight in a shoe store and be thinking, "Great idea!  I wonder if I could have a shoe store in my story too."  In my opinion, these are not plagaristic thoughts.  Maybe they are the mark of blocked writers who can't find their own original ideas, but usually no harm is done.  I believe the writing world is made of millions of these ideas, all floating around all the time. Sharing thoughts--and writing--is how we get new ones.  A hundred shoe-store scenes are probably out there in the literary world right this minute. 

It's how we write that scene, how we infuse it with our own brand of magic, that makes it interesting to the reader. 

That makes it worth protecting.  Until I've gotten this magic on the page, I don't worry about my ideas being stolen. 

If you don't buy this, think about your own ideas, the ones in your writing right now.  Where did they come from, in truth?  I'll hazard a guess and say that your ideas are an amalgamation of bits and pieces of experience and things you've read or a newspaper article you came across.  In other words, not original to just you.  The way you share them is original, but the idea itself isn't. 

So, learn to protect the right property.  Not ideas or information, but the way they are scribed.

Protecting Others' Work from You
Part of maturing as a writer--and gaining confidence in your own voice and style--is knowing how to take an idea and make it entirely your own.

This takes work.  Not everyone is willing to do the work. 

Case in point:  In many of my writing classes, we use a writing technique called "modeling."  Modeling is used in many art forms.  It is a great way to close study a master at her craft.  Artists copy other paintings to learn the brushwork of a master painter.  Writers can do the same with extraordinary passages of writing, to study the writer's pacing or rhythm. 

When we try a modeling exercises in my classes, I ask the writers to copy a paragraph or two, to get a feel for the rhythm.  These writers are not at final revision.  That makes it easier for them to see the difference between their own style and the style of the writer they are modeling.

A writer at final revision may not be able to keep the lines from blurring.  Why?  Because the work becomes something apart from us at final revision--not a creature of our own creation but something of itself.  It's very hard to remember our voice, at that point, because we aren't driving the bus anymore. 

So use modeling when you are working on early drafts.  If you find yourself copying that writer's exact words and thinking they are your own, that's dangerous.  Books that are really amazing are read by others who may very well read yours.  And notice the similarities.  Bad news for you.

Sharing Your Work in Online Critique Groups
All online critique groups have codes of conduct.  The three that Patricia is contemplating are all well known and used by many writers.  I've heard wonderful reports on Scribophile (read this one by writer Peter Pollack) and this post by writer Rebecca Blain has a great walk-through for Critique Circle.  Authonomy is also well respected, although I know less about it--anyone tried it?  Here's an interesting blog post on authonomy by writer Mary Walters.

The goal of all these sites is to take advantage of distances between us, physically, and our increasing time on the computer to create community--of readers and of writers. 

Finding a strong group of readers is always a treasure hunt for writers.  I prefer moderated groups, such as in an online class, but I also enjoy the free form nature of these sharing circles.  There's a lot to be gained.  You hone your own skills in giving feedback (Scribophile requires this before you get any feedback on your own writing), which is a number-one way to become a better writer.  As you see the weaknesses in others' work, you more easily see it in your own.

But there is a risk in sharing openly on the internet.  Codes of conduct are great, but some writers avoid following them.  A smart move might be to add the (c) notice when you post your work at any of these sites.

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