Given the proliferation of pirated and plagiarized content on the Internet, it’s only natural to be concerned about protecting your intellectual property — your writing. No one wants to have worked so hard to bring a story into the light of day only to have it stolen and claimed by someone else. So if you find yourself wondering along these lines, read on.
On Copyrights & Trademarks
Luckily for writers, there's actually no need to register copyright for your work. From a legal standpoint, the work is considered your intellectual property the moment you set it down in print. Since it is easy to prove that you were the person who wrote it, there is no need for an official company or publisher to guarantee your copyright.
Trademarks are another option for authors who want to protect their property. While copyrights protect the exact expression of ideas, trademarks can protect your work’s distinguishing concepts and ideas. (For example, in the “________ for Dummies” self-help series, the “For Dummies” concept is trademarked.) You can protect your book’s title, cover art, etc. easily just by placing a ™ mark, but a registered trademark requires a little more work.
Some people still prefer to have the peace of mind copyright can bring, and a fixed date to show exactly when the book came into existence. If you really feel it is necessary, you can register your work with the US Copyright Office for a nominal fee. There's no need to place a copyright logo on your manuscript if you're still in the process of sending it off to publishers. Anyone who is in the business is aware that the work is yours because you put it down on paper.
Let Your Publisher Do the Work
Once you’ve signed a publishing contract, it becomes your publisher's responsibility to register the copyright. The submitted manuscript will often change a great deal during the editorial process, sometimes to the point of being almost unrecognizable. (One major reason why registering a copyright on a manuscript is pointless.) In the end, you cannot copyright an idea. Specific themes, characters and other aspects of your story can be copyrighted, but all ideas are still free. If you're concerned about plagiarism, remember that your story itself cannot be copied, but story ideas are fair game because there is no way to prove who came up with it first.
But What About Theft?
It is highly unlikely that any publishing company will steal your work, given that they have to go through thousands of different manuscripts and turn most of them down. They're far more interested in finding a story they can sell, and people often have a higher opinion of their own work than is really justified. This kind of paranoia can easily put people off ever publishing your work in the first place.