A few weeks ago, I was talking to a screenwriter pal of mine (because if you really want to understand creative misery, talk to one of those guys), and he said something that made me want to throttle him soundly about the neck. He said: “I can’t submit anything ’till I’ve registered my stuff.”
He meant, of course, registering with the US Copyright office. He planned on spending $35 whole dollars that could be spent on ramen noodles and boxes of tissues (because if you’re really suffering through creative misery, those are things you’re gonna need) and then going through an extra painful step of applying and waiting before he went on with his life and tried to do something with his writing.
He is, of course, very new to this
misery writing business.
If there’s one thing writers do not need to do, it is register their work. For one, copyright law actually protects our written expressions as soon as they’re put to page—with or without that silly little circle-c symbol new writers slap on their manuscripts. We need the symbol about as much as we need a pencil in the eye; just ask the SFWA, also known as the illustrious Science Fiction Writers Association. People who, I might remind you, are actually paid to write. (But they won’t stab you in the eye with a pencil. That’s the HWA’s job.)
But, all the screenwriters in the audience might say, what if someone steals my stuff? Well, considering that you’re all in a business that is far more cutthroat and bloodthirsty than that of horror novelists, I’d say you’re within your right to worry about such things. After all, it is Hollywood that can produce so many movies in the same year about the exact same thing—like 2012, the year of a gajillion Snow White remakes, for example.
But as far as us novelists go, I can tell you: don’t worry. Shuuuuush, precious little creative type. Nobody cares enough to steal our novels, anyway.
The SFWA has a more sensitive way of saying it, “Theft of unpublished work is so rare as to be functionally nonexistent.”
Registering that unpublished work with the US Copyright office does two things: first, it allows a writer to file a lawsuit in the rare event that their unpublished work is stolen and second, it wastes $35 dollars. It does not allow us cart-blanche authority to eye-stab anyone who dare plagiarize a word we’ve written down. The only right we get for that money is the right to sue. Who among us are rich enough to enter into a protracted, exhausting court case that could cost us thousands of dollars even in the event of victory, just to keep our claim on a 40,000 word pile of nonsense called The Devil’s Pantalones?
Hey…now I kind of want to write a novel about devil pants—but don’t you steal my idea. But wait: you totally can. Anyone reading this can say, “Hey, that’s a good idea, demon pants, so I’m going to write a novel about Lucifer’s Unmentionables.” Copyright laws protect the expression of an idea, not the idea itself, which is why it’s so hard to prove literary copyright infringement in court. The words have to be the same, not the ideas.
And ideas are stolen every day. We’re all probably doing it right now in ways we can’t even tell.
So, just take a deep breath, relax, and don’t worry about anyone running away with your brilliant 60,000 word manuscript about lingerie running amok in the fashion underworld. The great thing about ideas is, once they start popping up, they never seem to stop. If The Bloomers of Beelzebub doesn’t work out for you, for whatever reason, you will find other genius idea to write about. And as long as we keep enough ramen and tissue in the house, we’ll be stocked up well enough to keep
being miserable writing.
But, whatever you do, don’t be a screenwriter. Those people have it tough.