How to Copyright a Book or Novel

How to Copyright a Book or Novel

by Jane Haskins, Esq., September 2015

Your book is protected by a copyright as soon as it is written, but to get the full advantage of the copyright protections available to you, you need to register your copyright.

General Rules for Copyrights of Books and Novels

Your novel or other book is copyrightable as a literary work if it meets two criteria:

  • It must be your original work: it must originate with you and show some minimal amount of creativity. It can’t consist of a mere list of factual information, such as the alphabetical listing of names in the white pages of a phone book. You cannot copyright a book’s title or the names of characters.
  • It must be fixed in a tangible object such as paper or a computer. A story that you make up and tell to your children is not copyrightable unless you write it down or make a recording of it. A book or novel does not need to have literary merit to receive copyright protection.

When Does Copyright Protection Begin?

A literary work is copyrighted as soon as the words are written down, typed or otherwise recorded. Therefore, copyright protection for your novel begins as soon as you have written it. You do not need to place a copyright notice on your book or register it with the copyright office to receive copyright protection. Copyright protection lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus 70 years.

Rights Protected by Copyright

The copyright to your book or novel is actually a group of exclusive rights: the right to make copies, the right to sell or distribute copies, the right to prepare derivative works based upon your book and the right to publicly display your book.

Types of Books that Can Be Copyrighted

A book you wrote yourself, either alone or with another author, such as a novel, biography, memoir, cookbook or other nonfiction book.

  • A collection of shorter works that you wrote and compiled into a book, such as a book of poems or short stories.
  • A compilation of pre-existing works, such as an anthology of the best short fiction of the year. In this type of book, the copyright extends only to new content that you prepared for the compilation, and to the selection, coordination and arrangement of the material in the book. It does not extend to the underlying material itself. For example, you may be able to copyright the selection and arrangement of Mother Goose rhymes in a book according to the foods they feature, but your copyright will not include the rhymes themselves.

Copyright and Publication of Your Book

Copyright protection is available for unpublished books as well as published ones.

The copyright office considers your book to be “published” when copies are distributed or offered to the public, either in print or digitally.
You can register a copyright in an unpublished book or manuscript. If a publishing company later publishes your book, you may be asked to assign all or part of the rights to the publisher. An assignment transfers a copyright to someone else. Exclusive rights can only be assigned by written agreement.

Why Should You Register a Copyright?

There are several advantages to registering the copyright in your book or novel:

  • Registration creates a record of your copyright ownership and may help deter others from copying your work.
  • You cannot sue someone for copyright infringement unless you have registered your copyright.
  • If you register your copyright within three months of publication or before an infringement occurs, you can recover statutory damages and attorneys fees if you sue someone for copyright infringement. Statutory damages can be greater than your actual damages, and you are not required to prove your loss or the infringer’s profits to recover statutory damages.
  • If your book is published, registration fulfills a requirement that you deposit two copies of your work with the Library of Congress within three months of its publication.

Registration Procedures and Deposit Requirements

To register a copyright, you must deposit three things with the U.S. Copyright Office:

  • A completed application form, submitted online or by mail. Online applications have faster processing times and lower fees.
  • A separate filing fee for online applications and paper applications.
  • A nonreturnable copy or copies of your work. A full description of the number and type of copies you must submit and the methods available for submitting them can be found on the copyright office website.

Registering a copyright is required if you want to actually defend your copyright in court from infringers. When you're ready to register your copyright, LegalZoom will help you file the paperwork. Just get started by answering some questions about your book or novel.