How Do You Protect Your Writing?

How do authors protect their writing

How Do You Protect Your Writing?

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“Is it safe to share my writing?” “Do I need to copyright my book?” “How do I stop piracy?” “Are writing contests worth entering?”… How do writers protect their work?

At his keynote speech at this year’s Writer’s Digest conference in New York—an annual event I highly recommend for authors—Chuck Wendig talked about his journey as a writer leading him to writing for the Marvel and Star Wars universes, a collaboration that notoriously ended badly, in no small part thanks to the company’s response to internet trolls objecting to his diverse characters.

Working in Hollywood, Wendig said, made the publishing world feel like a great big hug.

As challenging as the publishing business can be for authors, the film and TV business can be especially brutal, especially on writers and other creatives, who are frequently relegated to the bottom of the food chain despite being the indispensable font from which all of their product flows.

I’ve been avidly following the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, having long advocated for creators to demand a seat at the table and an equitable piece of the pie in a business where frequently the artist is the one who benefits least from the fruit of the art.

But even if ours is a kinder, gentler industry than the Hollywood machine, a big part of writers taking their place at the table is not only advocating for ourselves as authors, but protecting our creative output, in other words our work and our rights to it.

A big part of writers taking their place at the table is not only advocating for ourselves as authors, but protecting our creative output, in other words our work and our rights to it.

There are basic considerations every writer should be mindful of in sharing, selling, and marketing their writing. A disclaimer: I’m not any kind of legal professional, nor an expert on these matters, but I’ll try to point you toward resources to help you educate and inform yourself so you can safeguard your own intellectual property.

Submitting your work

When submitting to agents and editors, as long as you’ve done your research into whom you’re submitting to, you don’t generally need to worry about your rights to your work being pilfered in the submission process. With established, reputable professionals and companies, you do not have to copyright a manuscript before going out on submission. (More on copyrights below.)

Nor may it be a great idea to ask an agent or publisher for any type of nondisclosure agreement. Doing so may make you look like an amateur at best, mistrustful of the professionals/companies you’re submitting to at worst, and may deter them from even considering your story.

But do make sure your name, a contact, and the manuscript name is in the header or footer of every page, and add a cover page with that info and any representation information—and see below for info on vetting the people you submit to.

Selling your work

Signing an agency or publishing contract can be a coveted milestone in an author’s career. But take care to read what you’re signing, and thoroughly understand the terms.

With agents, make sure you understand and agree with the terms of representation—the commission and how royalties are paid to authors, the duration of the contract, which work(s) of yours are encompassed by the agreement, the scope of representation, termination clauses, and more. The Author’s Guild has an excellent overview here.

When you sign a publishing contract you are essentially signing over certain rights to your work. While even a $10,000 or $15,000 advance may sound wonderful for an author who’s never been paid for their creative work, along with the opportunity to have it on the market, realize that you may be selling major rights in all or most media (now known or yet to be invented) throughout the world for the life of copyright, which is 75 years past your own life.

Obviously the calculus of our careers means that selling our rights is the product we are offering, but consider the scope of it when you are negotiating a price. Understand exactly what rights you are offering and what the terms are, your royalty rate, payment structure, etc. (This detailed overview is similarly forensic and complex to an actual publishing contract.) And don’t be hesitant to negotiate the terms regarding the amount they’re offering or what specific rights. 

Read more: “How Do You Value Your Creative Work?”

And be sure to do your due diligence before submitting or signing with anyone. There are bad actors in every profession, and publishing is no exception:

  • I’m a big fan of Victoria Strauss’s Writer Beware feature with the SFWA; she investigates complaints into industry professionals and shares her findings.
  • The open-forum site Absolute Write Water Cooler is another good place to search before submitting/signing.
  • Jane Friedman recently offered a free Sunday Sermon about being savvy about spotting less-than-ethical business dealings and scams that I highly recommend watching here.

Hiring a pro

Similar vetting guidelines also apply to hiring an editor or any other professional—authenticity readers, formatters, cover designers, coaches, etc. My free “Get It Edited” guide (you’ll find it here) offers a rigorous way to check any book professionals before hiring them—editors, coaches, etc.—and it’s worth the time and effort to do so.

Once an author and I agree to work together, I offer a contract for professional services spelling out our scope of work, which includes an intellectual property clause. If your contract with a professional doesn’t specifically offer a similar clause (or they don’t offer a contract at all—in which case I recommend not working with them), it’s okay to ask for it. If they balk…so should you.

Read more: “Caveat Scriptor: When Creators Become the Customers

Readers and reviewers

There are no formal guidelines for beta readers and crit partners, but use your common sense and judgment.

With crit partners—especially those you have worked with for some time, or who have entrusted their manuscripts to you in the past—or authors you’re requesting a blurb from, consider that asking them to sign something protecting your rights may feel like a pretty big insult to their trustworthiness. In a relationship so deeply built on mutual openness, trust, and good intentions, that could do irreparable harm. If you trust their integrity so little, why do you want their feedback on your most personal creative work?

Beta readers may be a little different, especially if you don’t know them well, or they aren’t fellow authors or in the “the business,” or you’re using a paid beta-reading service.

In the latter case, as with other professional services you should be working under some kind of contract. If it doesn’t specifically state anything about your intellectual property or nondisclosure, it’s perfectly fine to ask for that to be added—they are likely subcontracting the work to freelance readers, whose background (and sometimes identity!) you don’t usually know.

With other beta readers or people you’re asking to offer reviews of your work, again, use your best judgment and instincts. Is this someone you know well? A friend of a friend? Someone from a writer’s organization you belong to? A rando you met in the grocery store checkout line? In each case, consider your comfort level and weigh the cost benefit of asking them to sign an NDA or other privacy form.

If they feel offended, especially if they’re doing the read as a favor, it may impact their receptivity to your work and color their impressions of it—which isn’t useful to you as an author looking for an unbiased reader’s opinion. But if your gut tells you to be wary, then perhaps consider whether this person is the right reader for you in the first place.


Winning writing contests can be a feather in your cap, and it’s enticing to consider being able to add “award-winning author” to your bio, but they come with their own set of considerations.

Many contests are moneymaking prospects for the organization or individual running them. That doesn’t necessarily mean the contest isn’t worthwhile, simply that you should keep in mind that this is a business proposition and protect yourself accordingly.

Research the contest to see who is offering it and make sure it’s a reputable organization, and one that will actually mean something if you cite it as a credit. The fact of winning a contest doesn’t carry a lot of weight if agents, editors, or even readers have never heard of it.

But most important, make sure you read the terms and conditions of the contest. Some specify that winners or even all entrants are offering publication rights to their work, sometimes onetime rights in conjunction with the organization running the contest, but sometimes broader rights that can rob you of your own intellectual property and the chance to do something else with it beyond the contest. Authors and pub-industry veterans Anne R. Allen and Ruth Harris offer a great summary of red flags here.

Misappropriation and piracy of your work

Last week I shared Jane Friedman’s recent battle to have phony AI-generated books with her name on them removed from book outlets, and talked about ways authors can begin to protect themselves against similar encroachments on their work and reputation.

For instance, be aware that any material you enter into an artificial intelligence engine such as Chat GPT then becomes part of the source material it may use in future search results. Consider that you are essentially offering free use of your product to the world at large by using these programs, and how much of your original ideas and material you’re willing to offer up for mass consumption.

Increasingly with AI and even piracy, it’s important to prove ownership of your work. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to copyright every manuscript (and keep in mind it’s not possible to copyright an idea or a title—and that any changes made to a work after a copyright is filed means you must file a new copyright on that version to protect it).

Research trademark and copyright laws to know when your work is protected, and when and whether a copyright may be useful. I’m no expert in this arena, but here are some resources that may shed some light:

Piracy is a vexing and complicated problem that admittedly I, too, am often overwhelmed by. So many sites pop up all the time offering free downloads of material you may be selling, and trying to find and snuff them all can feel like an endless game of whack-a-mole.

But there are a few basic things you can do to try to safeguard yourself. Create Google alerts for your name and your book and series titles. That will send you notices of any internet mentions, including when your book is being illegally offered for download.

The process of stopping online piracy is a little complex (and sadly only varyingly successful), but there is legal protection against this type of theft, the Digital Copyright Millennium Act, DCMA.

There are specific procedures for filing a DCMA takedown notice with a site that is pirating your work or otherwise infringing on your copyright, which you can find here, along with a template for the notice. You can find additional information and some caveats here as well.

Your work is an asset

Finally, not to be morbid, but it’s worth thinking about what becomes of your intellectual property after you’re gone. What rights you retain and any income from it, such as royalties or future publication, are part of your estate. They can be rolled into the rest of it in your bequeathals, or you might want to consider an intellectual heir who can manage these rights.

Authors, what have I missed? What other things do writers need to be aware of in safeguarding their intellectual property? Weigh in below!

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6 Comments. Leave new

  • I always think about a contract I signed quite a while back, before AI, that had me sign away all my rights to the article “in the universe.” I remember thinking, “Are they expecting to publish it on Mars?” Just shows how far some will go to ensure they have every possible right to your work “in the universe.” Great post, BTW!

    • UGH, that hurts my heart–and frosts my heinie. Terms like that are such a terrible rights grab–and I worry that they aren’t all that rare in the biz. That’s why I always exhort authors to read everything before signing–and if it’s possible, have a legal professional look it over. If an author decides it’s worth it, fine–but they need to know exactly what they are selling. Thanks for the comment, Densie.

  • Thank you, Tiffany. I, an interloper in the twenty-first century, especially appreciate your warnings about what you give up when you put something into AI. I remind myself that while AI’s useful, it’s power is double-edged.

    • It’s true. I was reminded this morning by an article in the NYTimes that it can be used for great good–a woman who has been paralyzed and unable to speak was able to communicate with AI-assisted technology. But I’m also mindful–and very cautious–of how it may be used for not-so-good, especially relative to authors. Good to see you here, Bob, as always.

  • Thank you for taking the time to deep-dive into this topic and stressing to authors the importance of safeguarding their work. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the content that is used to train Large Language Models (LLMs) like ChatGPT and a lot of the information on that topic is about as clear as mud. Your post provides authors with some clarity. Essentially, creatives become ‘content providers’ used in this training when they send their work out into the universe. I would encourage any author interested in the commercial value of their work to at least speak with a trusted attorney who specializes in trademark and copyright law. Also, Dave Chesson’s new product, Reader Scout, seems promising when combined with Google alerts.

    This link is at least a step in the right direction.

    • Thanks, Mac–I agree that AI needs to be regulated, and soon (though this article suggests it won’t move quickly). Meanwhile I think you’re right–it’s on authors and other creatives to be careful and wise about how they use AI–and what they feed into it. And yes, it’s also a great idea to speak to an IP professional about ways to protect yourself and your work. I also joined the Authors Guild–a long-overdue choice. They’re doing excellent work in advocating for authors in this and many other regards, and lend more heft to our efforts to protect ourselves and our work. Thanks for weighing in, and sharing the link–headed that way now.


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