When to © …

Unless you’re writing a work for hire or you have assigned copyright in your work to a publisher or someone else, chances are that you hold the copyright to your manuscript. You don’t have to register your copyright to own it, although you should register at some point to gain the additional protections that registration grants. This helpful document from the Copyright Office outlines some of the copyright basics you might be interested in, including the benefits of registration.

Writers are often confused not only about when, why, and how to register their work, but also about what to do with the good old “c in a circle” copyright symbol: ©. Do you have to include it on your work to be protected? When should you include it? Where should you include it, etc.?

Under current American law, the © symbol is not required to protect your work, whether or not your work is registered. However, it is a good idea to include it, alongside your name and the year of publication of your work, simply to tell other people that you own the copyright in the work, and the date from which you assert that ownership, i.e., the date you wrote the book, article, or even website; yes, you can put the © symbol on your website to protect the copyright in your original work there, too.

There’s no magic to the symbol. You don’t have to register or apply to use it. You can simply put it on your work.

However, there are many situations where you don’t have to worry about it too much. For example, when you publish with a traditional publisher, your publisher will probably place the copyright symbol on the manuscript when the book goes into production. The copyright will be in your name, unless you assigned the copyright to the publisher or wrote the book as a work for hire.

You also don’t need to include the © symbol when you first submit your work to agents or publishers. You can assume they’re aware of your ownership of the copyright by the very fact of your submission. Some agents and publishers might even wonder, if you insert the © symbol, whether this means the work has previously been published, or whether you’re inserting the symbol as an indication that you think the work is complete as is, and that you’re not prepared to consider any revisions they might request. None of that is a legal issue; it’s just a convention in the industry that when you’re first sharing work with agents and editors, you typically don’t include the © symbol. However, there’s nothing technically or legally wrong with doing so if it makes you feel more comfortable about sharing the work.

You probably needn’t be too concerned that an agent or editor will “steal” your work if you don’t include the symbol. Anyone who infringes your copyright will be liable for infringement whether or not you put the © symbol on the work. But of course if it makes you feel better to have the notice there, go for it.

If you’re an independent author, whether self-publishing on your own website or on a platform like Amazon’s Kindle Direct (KDP), it’s a good idea to have the copyright notice on your work, but, again, if someone copies your work without your permission, they’re responsible for copyright infringement whether or not you put a © symbol on the work. What matters is whether they actually “copied” for the purposes of the law and whether they had a defense available, like, say, fair use.

The © symbol feels like it should come with all sorts of legal guarantees and consequences, but actually it doesn’t mean or do much in practice other than alert folks about who claims copyright in the work and the year the work was created. If readers know you’re the author/copyright owner, either because you’re submitting the work to them for consideration (e.g., agents/editors) or because you’re publishing online (e.g., KDP), those people will know from the context that you are the copyright owner so it’s usually not a big deal if you forget to include the notice.

For more on copyright notice issues, see The Copyright Office’s fact sheet on Copyright Notice.