Copyright and Me!

Copyright is a tricky thing….

The basic idea is that, by law, you automatically own copyright to anything you create. If I write a poem on a napkin, that poem is copyrighted and I own the copyright.

But what does that really mean?

That means I, alone, have the right to produce, publish, copy, or otherwise distribute the story that I’ve written. If anyone else does, I have the government’s support in suing the offender for any damages I may have suffered (or unlawful gains he may have gotten).

The thing is, the government doesn’t enforce this. They’ll support me, if I try to enforce my own copyright, but the government doesn’t actively enforce anyone’s copyrights.

To make things more complicated, any copyright that is not aggressively defended by its holder will quickly become public domain. That means if somebody steals my idea and starts reproducing it, I can make them stop, but I have to make them stop. The government won’t do it for me. And if I don’t make them stop, then pretty soon I’ll lose the right to do even that.

The process of making them stop requires some sort of proof of original concept. That’s where a lot of people get confused. If I send a cease and desist letter to someone trying to use my story, they might just fire back and tell me to stop using their story, and then we go to court and each try to prove that we started it.

To that end, it’s possible to register a story with the Library of Congress, which is considered pretty definite proof of concept in any U. S. court. That’s about a $250 proposition, if I remember correctly.

I’ve also heard that a reliable (and much cheaper) way to do this is to mail yourself a copy of the story, and not open it. The fact that it’s in a sealed package with a government time-stamp on it makes it a pretty definite piece of evidence. I have no idea if that’s actually true, but I’ve heard it often.

So, here’s the problem with Sleeping Kings. For one, if anyone started to steal it, it would take a while before I found out, most likely, and then I’d have to enlist the aid of a lawyer to try to shut them down (and hope that I could establish proof of originality).

Worse, much worse, would be if someone stole the whole story, submitted it to a publishing house, and successfully sold it. I would hate for someone else to get professionally published off my work, when I haven’t. And, of course, I wouldn’t know about that at all until the book came out. Then I could try suing, but I’d be going up against a major publishing house, and they’ve got good lawyers, y’know? My only real hope then would be to have registered the story with the Library of Congress before the date that the thief entered into negotiations with the publisher.

(Although, if that happened, I’d probably get a lot of money. I doubt the story would ever get published at that point, though, even under my name.)

Ah. And that’s the other problem. Even if no one ever messes with me or steals my story, it’s going to be really hard for me to ever get Sleeping Kings professionally published. Because it already is published.

See, the way an author makes money off his ideas, is to sell his copyright. As I said earlier, for anything I write, I automatically get the right to produce, publish, copy, or otherwise distribute it. The big money is in “first North American distribution rights.” I sell that right to the publisher for a big wad of cash (or a residual contract), and he uses it to print up and distribute copies of my original work. If it sells big, then someday I might want to sell reprint rights, or international rights, or franchise rights (if someone wants to start a series set in my universe).

The internet makes things tricky, though. A publisher could try to argue that this story that I’ve put up on my website is already published, and so he might consider “first North American distribution rights” already used, and his only offer is going to be for reprints, which don’t sell for nearly as much money.

The long and the short of it is that I’m aware of all these things going into the project. Sleeping Kings is not much like anything else I’ve written, or anything else I ever intend to write. It could get stolen from me, and then I’d have a good sad story to put in my autobiography. It could become huge but, because of the way I managed things, I may never make a penny off it. Or it could just be a quiet little weblog, that no one ever reads, and still I can’t sell it because the publisher learns it was posted at all.

Copyright is a tricky thing. I do reserve all rights to everything I post, here or on Sleeping Kings. To an extent, though, I need to be read to keep writing, and if major publishing houses aren’t willing to pick my stuff up, I’ve got to do something. That’s what I’m trying. We’ll all watch and see what happens.