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Question
Hello! I've been working on an idea about a book (or two) for a few years now. I've started the beginning stages of writing and believe I need to protect my idea. The comment about sending the idea to myself came up. Should that, in any case, be sufficient enough to hold up if someone were to steal the idea? Should I keep it unopened for proof or notary? Thank you!!

Answer
Hi, Kelsey!

What you've described here is what's known as a "poor man's copyright." Unfortunately, the concept is a myth. There is no protection available to you by doing this. Here's the reason: It's very possible to mail yourself an EMPTY envelope. The post office doesn't require a package to be sealed. They simply don't accept responsibility if the contents are lost. And they don't care how much extra postage you put on a package. You could put $30 worth of stamps on a regular envelope and they'll send it. So, an unscrupulous person could mail an empty envelope to himself postmarked today, hold onto the postmarked envelope, wait five years until a major bestseller emerged (like the next Harry Potter or Twilight), type up the manuscript, slip it in the envelope, and POOF! They could claim the work was stolen from *them!* So, the courts have never allowed that method to work.

Next, an *idea* can't be copyrighted. There's no protection available to an author except for the written words on the page. You have immediate protection for that, from the moment you put words to paper, or text to screen (even on cell phones!) No paperwork required. But while protection is automatic, registration is the only way you can actually sue someone later if your idea is stolen and made available to the public for profit. There's the key---the thief must PROFIT from your idea. If they throw it up on a blog and claim it as their own, there's little protection. Some, but not much.

In order to register, you have to have a completed manuscript or story. Well, actually, that's not completely true. You CAN submit a partial manuscript for protection, but it would only cover what's submitted . . . not the later completed manuscript or any future edits. It's the exact same as if you sent in a photograph for protection. A different photo of a different place or at a different time of day isn't the same photo.

You should definitely spend some time over at the U.S. Copyright website. Their 'Frequently Asked Questions' page is a GREAT resource, and is written in plain, easy to understand language. Here's a link: http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq

Hope that helps, and feel free to ask any more questions you might have.  Good luck with the novel!

Cathy

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Cathy Clamp

Expertise

I'm happy to answer questions about any aspect of writing novels, from the beginning kernel of an idea through completion. I can help with writing a query letter and synopsis to an agent or editor. I can explain publishing terminology and acronyms. I can also assist with questions about verifying the credentials of agents/publishers and how to proceed once you've been accepted for publication. I can teach the rules of formatting a manuscript, creating viable plots, characterization and flow in the following genres: romance, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, suspense, horror, women's fiction, mainstream and mystery.

Experience

I'm a USA Today bestselling author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance for Tor/Forge Books. Along with a co-author, I've published fifteen novels (combination of mass market and trade softcover) since 2003, and have contracts for four more books through 2011.

Organizations
Romance Writers of America, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Western Outdoor Writers, Horror Writers of America.

Publications
Tor/Forge Books, Western Reflections Publishing, BenBella Books, Running Press, Wild Child Publishing. Many others.

Education/Credentials
My educational background is limited to real life experience of publishing novels commercially for the past five years.

Awards and Honors
USA Today bestseller, Waldenbooks Mass Market Paperback Top 20 bestseller, Nielsen BookScan Top 20 bestseller, RT BOOKreviews Career Achievement Award winner, 2009, Book Buyers Best Award for Paranormal, Romantic Times Best Werewolf Novel, Write Touch Readers Award, EVVY Best Historical Chronicle Award, The Lories Best Paranormal. Many others.

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