QUESTION: How do I copy protect an essay or writing so nobody can deny that I wrote it? I'd like to post some rough drafts online to get feedback to fine tune a final version and want to maintain credit for the bulk of it.
ANSWER: Hi James -
Technically you own the copyright and intellectual property rights to anything once it exists in 'any fixed medium', which would include a digital file on your computer. If you post it online it will carry a date, establishing a point in time when you could claim ownership. Likewise, if you correspond with an editor and/or get published by a magazine or newspaper. If someone 'stole' or plagiarized it in whole or part, you could potentially prove that you had it first. In practice, you easily might never know it happened. If you did know, you would probably never take something like that to court unless it was somehow the most valuable essay ever written, and even if you did pursue it, it's doubtful you could ever receive any kind of meaningful judgement or settlement.
Writers constantly face this issue and have to weigh 'protecting something' and showing it to people. In general, I advise that you circulate material prudently for feedback and widely once it's 'done'. As a writer, your body of work and abilities are (hopefully) greater than any one piece, but it's not wrong to play it a little close to the vest, especially when it's in development.
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: I'm not sure I trust a file method since file dates can be manipulated. A friend suggested mailing it to myself and using the post office's date on the stamp but I don't trust that either. I suppose I can't always protect from plagiarism but I'd simply like to state and have it believed that I was the first to write a document even if some jerk later finds they can profit from it. Any legal means to get a first copy of something dated and associated with myself permanently?
There are two formal ways to register a piece of material (both charge fees):
the Library of Congress - which, I believe keeps the material on file indefinitely) and
the Writers Guild of America (WGA) - which, I believe, keeps it on file for 5 years. They won't 'protect you' from theft but would establish a date of ownership. See links below.
Here is my list of things you can do to protect your material:
1. Keep it close to the vest—Don’t talk about the project to anyone in detail, especially writers, producers or agents you don’t totally trust
2. Don’t leave your notebook in public
3. Document your ideas—If you’re meeting with someone professionally, write up a description of the project before the meeting and email it to yourself or someone you trust to establish a date of ownership.
- Register it with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) https://www.wgawregistry.org/webrss/dataentry.asp
- Register it with the US Copyright Office http://www.copyright.gov/
4. Keep your people posted—If you have an agent, manager or lawyer, make sure your rep knows what you’re pitching before you pitch it.
5. Leave a paper trail—Send a follow-up email that includes a brief description of the project you discussed after any meeting.
6. Back up your work–Make sure your work is safe by creating copies.