There is absolutely nothing more frustrating than working night and day to pump out what you believed was an original novel, only to discover that something awfully similar exists. It can easily happen, right? There are only so many original plot lines out there and it's just your spin and take on it that will make yours unique. But after all that work, you certainly wouldn't want the author of the similar book to come after you and claim you plagiarized their work, even though you clearly didn't. But . . . there are people that do. Crazy right? Which makes you scratch your head and think about all those contest entries you've sent out, all those crit partners who have read your work, and pretty much anyone and everyone you've ever let take a look at your novel along the way. Exactly how protected are you?
The good news is - in an age of computers, there is an actual record of when you created your document. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, your work is protected "the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." Note: their words, not mine. :) However, if you want this to effectively stand up in a court of law if you find some schmo really has taken the liberty of making your words his or her own, you need to actually register it with the copyright office for a nominal fee. I've heard authors say that you don't actually need to do this step because a publisher will do it for you if they want to publish your book, since it will likely be in a different form once they're ready to do so than how you might have registered it in the first place. If you have already registered it, no problem. Just extra protection, and you are allowed to amend that copyright by updating it with a future draft if it has changed substantially. Make sure when you send your work in, you send it with some form of proof of submission, because that will serve as your evidence, should it be required, as the copyright office is so backlogged it is not uncommon for it to take over a year to get the actual certificate in hand. However, you can always contact them and they can verify receipt of your work even if you have not yet received the certificate.
It is also recommended that when your work is complete, you should mail a copy of it to yourself in a trackable form and keep it, sealed, somewhere safe. Keep in mind, however, this does not substitute for actually registering the work through the proper channels, but simply provides yet another layer of proof.
Works created prior to 1923 may fall into a different set of copyright laws, so keep in mind if you want to use song lyrics or passages of text from other novels or poems in your work, you need to actually secure permission from the publisher or artist to do so. And no, most writers and musicians won't just be so flattered that you want to use them in your great novel that they give these things away for free. Be prepared to pay a fee depending on how little or much of the work you wish to use. For more information on the do's and don'ts of using song lyrics in your writing, check out my earlier blog post specifically on that here.
While copyright protects original literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works, keep in mind it does NOT protect ideas, titles, or facts, so still be careful when pitching an idea that you have yet to commit to paper in some form. It's actually quite shocking the amount of innocent "stealing" that goes on - whether it be a phrase or an entire blog post or in some cases, an entire novel. Know how to protect yourself, and always give credit where credit is due if you are quoting something or someone.
For more information about the specifics of copyright law, check out the U.S. Copyright Office website at www.copyright.gov