How do I protect my work?

I’m always of two minds when folks call in with this question. On the one hand, it’s really putting the cart before the horse. It feels best to advise people to focus on the writing first and not worry about getting it out there or whatever drama that might entail.

On the other, I get the impulse to be concerned. Many if not most artists want their work to be seen by the universe, and that happening centers on the work being special, unique, not like anyone else’s.

But whether I feel the question is warranted or not doesn’t much matter. My job—Gotham’s job—is to provide writers, new and not, a creative home, and to make everyone who wants ‘in’ feel comfortable making the decision to enroll and entrust us with their baby.

Now, bottom line, your work is legally your work as of its creation. Similar to the Poor (Wo)Man’s copyright of yore (actually people still do this), where folks mail themselves their own work, never to break the envelope’s seal, your computer date-and-time stamps what you’ve written just like the post office does. And it’s yours as of that date, that time.

But if you want an extra layer of comfort, here’s some stuff to keep in mind:

  1. Prose writers, poets, and songwriters, you can copyright your work with the Library of Congress for about $35.
  2. Screenwriters, TV writers, playwrights, you can register your work with The Writers’ Guild, East and West. West costs $20 and lasts 5 years, East costs $25 and lasts 10. Or copyright if you’d prefer.
  3. Don’t do both. That’s kinda paranoid.
  4. You can’t protect an idea or a concept. If you could, Romeo and Juliet couldn’t exist in the same universe as West Side StoryDeep Impact and Armageddon couldn’t have graced our screens during the same summer, and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar wouldn’t be a thing. You can only protect the exact rendering of an idea.
  5. Stealing is hard to prove, even if you have ‘proof of authorship’ in hand.

Beyond that, I will say that being a writer requires a bit of healthy ego. You have to believe that YOU have a singular story to tell, that your story is the one that needs to be told. And because of that, the likelihood of someone plunking down $400+ to take a class and poach someone else’s idea is slim. To pass off the exact words and characters and dialogue and conflicts as their own? Even less so.

Think of it this way: taking a writing class is a wonderful experience where you can get valuable feedback, learn from the brilliant and less brilliant writing moves your peers have made, and find your people. And writing anything, finishing a draft of ANYthing, let alone a final, publishable/producible draft, takes time, heart, brain, and more than a bit of moxie. Best not to cheat yourself out what is poised to be a nourishing step in your writing journey. And to put your energy into creating, not worrying.

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