I am an aspiring writer, working towards professional publication. I belong to a writers’ group and have written a number of short stories which I am submitting to magazines and for competitions. I have also written two novels which I intend submitting to agents/publishers in due course. My question is – how can I protect my work? How can I prevent anyone who reads or hears it from plagiarising the ideas/plots? Can I, for example, apply for copyright on my draft novel? If not, at what stage can I apply for copyright?”
It is a common misconception that you need to apply for copyright in your work, or that it is possible to register it. Copyright arises automatically in any literary work you create, whether it is finished or has any literary merit. You will therefore have copyright in any drafts of the work as well as copyright in the finished novel.
This means that if anyone copies your draft or substantial parts of it you may be able to bring infringement action against them, even though the work is not finished. As long as you can show that their work is copied from yours, it does not matter which version it was copied from. Because there is no need to register copyright you do not need to make a decision as to which version you protect.
You need to be aware of the limitations of copyright. Because a copyright infringement action is based on copying, it also does not prevent anyone coming up with the same idea independently. It can also be hard to use copyright to prevent someone taking a seed of an idea from your plot and developing it into their own independent work. Protecting the plot in its own right is therefore very difficult.
You may have heard of copyright registration agencies. These do not provide an official registration service, however what they can do is retain records for you which you can use, for example it you need to prove at a later date that you had created the work before a specific point in time. However, there is no legal requirement to register with such an agency, and you may prefer to retain your own records.
Our legal advice comes from Helen Goldthorpe, an associate solicitor specialising in intellectual property and information technology law at Irwin Mitchell LLP. Irwin Mitchell LLP was established over 95 years ago and is one of the country’s largest law firms and the fifth largest litigation firm. The practice employs more than 2,100 staff, with offices in Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle, and Sheffield as well as Malaga.