Note: If you missed our informative webinar on this topic with Helen Sedwick (author and lawyer) entitled “Protecting Your Rights and Your Wallet,” be sure to check it out.
In a traditional publishing model, the bulk of the legal issues concerning publishing are handled by the publishing house. In a self-publishing model, the authors themselves assume those responsibilities, and most independent authors aren’t lawyers—so the legal ramifications of protecting the work are potentially easy to overlook.
This is a double-edged sword: on one hand, one of the biggest benefits of self-publishing is retaining full legal control of your work. On the other, this can be unfamiliar and intimidating territory for the uninitiated. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be.
Even if you don’t register your book with the U.S. Copyright Office, under U.S. law you receive some measure of protection as soon as you begin writing your book. (Note: if you’re in another country, the laws may vary.) However, should someone decide to infringe upon your rights, having the book copyrighted ahead of publication gives you much, much more leverage in bringing action against them.
As a part of this process, many authors also choose to have a Library of Congress Control Number assigned to their book, and if you use a copyright registration service for authors, that may be rolled into their services. LCCNs are typically assigned as a part of the PCN (Preassigned Control Number) program. An LCCN is used as a cataloguing method for books, and there are certain rules that have to be followed—the book can’t only exist in electronic form, for instance, and a physical copy must be submitted to the Library of Congress after publication occurs. Note that this is mutually exclusive with the Cataloging in Publication (CIP) program, which is not currently open to self-publishers. These additional tasks are not at all necessary to get your book to market, but they go a step further towards establishing your ownership over a particular piece of work.
The U.S. Copyright Office allows for a few different ways to file for a copyright, both before and after publication. You can even do it primarily online via the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO). There are forms to fill out, a fee to be paid, and you’ll submit a copy of the book itself. Preregistering is not a replacement for registration. If you preregister, you’ll still have to file for registration again after the book actually comes out. According to the U.S. Copyright Office itself, pregistration is generally not beneficial for most people—it’s useful to those who suspect their work is likely to be infringed upon before it’s even published. If you find the process confusing or intimidating, you’re not alone, and it’s not a bad idea to play it safe and have an established author services company aid you in completing the registration process correctly. Otherwise, you can usually fulfill all of the requirements online yourself.
Be aware of the levels of protection available to you, and make an informed decision on the steps you want to take to guard your rights. Some authors are more likely to be infringed upon than others, depending on the nature of the work. So, it’s ultimately up to you how much protection you want to invest in to feel secure, and there’s a spectrum of steps available for you to take—or to skip—depending on your point of view. It’s another example of the freedoms afforded to indie publishers: you get to call the shots.