How to Protect Your Unpublished Writing - Creative Law Center

How to Protect Your Unpublished Writing

The problem of how to protect unpublished writing from people you plan to work with puzzles many writers.  Whether and how you should share work before it has been finalized, published, and protected by an application filed with the Copyright Office is a valid concern. 

While the act of writing is a lonely one, no writer ever finishes a project alone. The prepublication cast of supporting characters for writers includes: editors, agents, cover artists, beta readers, proof readers, and even publishers. Those individuals provide insight and expertise for a polished book. How can a not yet fully realized manuscript be shared with people who need to see it and still be protected?

The Risk of an Unprotected Manuscript

A notorious case of [an allegedly] pilfered unpublished work is that of Emma Cline who wrote a best seller, The Girls. Cline reportedly received a $2 million advance for her first novel and optioned the film rights before the book was even published. In December 2017, her ex-boyfriend sued her claiming that after a creative collaboration, she stole his unpublished work by installing spyware on and hacking his computer.

The case is still in its early stages at the time of this writing. The basic elements of an infringement claim are access to the original work by the infringer and substantial similarity between the original and infringing works. The spyware Cline installed on his computer gave her access to the ex-boyfriend's original work. Whether his purloined work and her best seller are substantially similar will have to be proved.

The facts of the case aren't particularly common. Nor is the ex-boyfriend's initial litigation strategy of using Cline's sexual past against her which reeks of two things: (1) a money-grubbing shakedown; and (2) having failed to take sufficient measures to protect his unpublished work.

This post doesn't pretend to address how to defend against spyware and hacking. 

The focus here is on an issue at the core of the dispute: trust. Trust is at the foundation of all relationships, whether working or romantic.

protect unpublished writing

Establishing trust with those who will work on your unpublished manuscript − your editor or beta reader, for example − is the key if you want to protect unpublished writing.

Copyright Registration for an Unfinished Work is Premature

Copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. At the prepublication stage, the expression in your work may change once you have input from the professionals helping you finalize it. It may change a little, or you might experience a complete overhaul of your work.

Either way, it is premature to file an application for copyright registration until your work is finished. The workflow I recommend for writers is to create, publish, then apply for copyright registration.

The risk of having your work ripped off before publication is low. Filing an application for copyright registration before collaborative sharing is, in most cases, an excessive measure. Registering an early draft of your manuscript makes the registration of the final version a bit messier. This is because the second registration only protects the new expression in the published version. The expression in the unpublished version is protected by the earlier filing. If the work were ever infringed, you'd have to figure out which registration covers which expression. Let's just say, "Rat's nest."

Copyright Practice Tip

When deciding when to file an application for copyright registration on your written work, the best practice is to finalize, publish, then file for the registration.

Contracts can Protect Unpublished Writing

Editors, book cover artists, proof readers, and other professionals should have written contracts that set out the basic terms of their services. If they don't have a contract, they may not be as professional as they should be.  You can find other useful tips for identifying reliable support professionals at Writer Beware at SFWA.

Choosing the professionals you work with often requires a leap of faith, especially when you're new to the business of being a writer. There's trust, and then there are contracts. Contracts set expectations. If you are happy with what's in the contract, the relationship will be set up to succeed.

There are two provisions that can be included in the contracts of support professionals to protect unpublished writing.  There's one provision that should NOT be found in a contract of someone with whom you choose to work.

First, there should be "work for hire" language that makes it clear that you are the owner of any work done by the support professional. Work for hire language should be combined with assignment or copyright transfer language if, for any reason, the work done is not considered a work made for hire under copyright law.

Second, there should be a confidentiality provision in which the support professional agrees not to share, disseminate, or disclose your manuscript unless you give them permission in writing.

Asking to have these provisions included in the contract should not give anyone heart burn. If it does, I'd sure like to know why.

laptop next to a cup of coffee to illustrate unpublished writing

The provision that you should not agree to is one that attempts to reserve copyright in the work done by the support professional until final payment for their services is made. Do not let your copyright be held hostage in a payment dispute. A separate dispute resolution clause should adequately address payment problems.

Beta Readers and Informal Agreements

Beta readers are usually volunteers, not paid professionals, and the arrangement is typically an informal one. The understanding between you and a beta reader does not have to be highly structured, but it should be in writing.

An email that includes the key elements of the agreement will do the trick. For instance, an email to a potential beta reader might look like this:


Thank you for agreeing to help me with my work by being a beta reader. I appreciate the time it will take and I am happy send you a copy of the book when it is published. I’ve attached a list of questions I’d like you to focus on while you read.

I have not shared the manuscript with many people and I ask that you keep it confidential and that you keep your comments and our conversations about it confidential. Please do not copy or share the story with anyone or on social media.

This work is my baby. It has been created and is owned by me. If I incorporate any of your suggestions, comments, or ideas into the final version, those will be owned by me as well. Once you’ve finished the beta read and given me your thoughts, I ask that you return the original manuscript and your notes to me [if in hard copy] or delete the digital files.

Does this work for you?



When your prospective beta reader replies with a "yes, that works,"  you can feel as though you’ve established an understanding that will protect unpublished work. 

Managing expectations with contract language or in an email will give you a strong measure of confidence when it comes to releasing your work. Prepublication theft of a manuscript is rare and you can't control someone who is going to behave badly. But with a few key strokes, you can minimize the risk and determine who good working partners are.

Most Recent Update: August 1, 2019

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How to Protect Your Unpublished Writing

About the Author

Kathryn Goldman helps small business people, writers, artists, and creative professionals make a living from their creative work by teaching them how to protect and enforce their rights. She is an attorney who writes these posts to help you be more thoughtful about intellectual property and the law as you build your business, write your stories, and create your art.

  • Susan Windsor says:

    Mine is a question….what about protecting against cyber theft? People hacking into your computer (even when you are protected by security software) and stealing your intellectual property?

  • Tom Clayton says:

    Correction, see “TO”:

    “Thank you for agreeing to help me with my work by being a beta reader. I appreciate the time it will take and I am happy TO send you a copy of the book when it is published. I’ve attached a list of questions I’d like you to focus on while you read.

  • Linda zwirner says:

    Very useful information. I really appreciate it . Thank you.

  • stephan agee says:

    at the copyright office, what is the difference between registering and recordation of documents? EG


  • Hilary says:

    Hi Kathryn, I am wondering if a copyright symbol at the end of an article which may be a chapter in my book that I am working on is sufficient protection? Is it advisable to offer readers on my 3000 person email list or LinkedIn community – sneak peeks, blog posts or previews of chapters to engage interest? It sounds like I may risk having my work stolen. Should I avoid this and just write the book before sharing content or is there a safe way to engage my community to build interest in my book for early sales for the first printing. What type of professional services might I need to be in the know? Thank you

    • Wendy says:

      I’ve seen sources (mostly older ones that are probably based on pre-1978 copyright rules) that say you should always add a copyright notice, and I’ve seen sources that say putting one on a manuscript screams “amateur.”

      The real question is whether or not you’re comfortable with parts of your book being “published” prior to finishing it. On the one hand, yes, it can help to build/engage interest in your complete book. On the other hand, there are many contests and publishing avenues that will insist on “unpublished” work, and revealing chapters and other excerpts will exclude your completed book from them.

  • Wendy says:

    I just had my backpack stolen–including a flash drive with published and incomplete books on it. How would I prove ownership if the unpublished work turns up somewhere under someone else’s name?

    • Fernando rodriguez says:

      One thing we do in music is we send by certified mail to our selves the demo with a note explaining the reasons why, when we received that on the mail we never gonna opened, that envelope will be kept in a safe place just in case someday might be needed to be use in court cause the delivery or dispatch date is on the USPS label as a proof also.

      • Wendy says:

        “Post office patent” (or copyright) is better than nothing, but it doesn’t hold much water if it ever has to float in court.

        • You’re right, Wendy. A sealed envelope that you have mailed to yourself is worthless in court. And it’s about the same as doing nothing.

    • Any other copies? A backup? A printed out version? If so, throw down the $35 and file an application for copyright registration.

      • Wendy says:

        I do have my “master” copies (the flash drive was for uploading and in case I wanted to tweak a few things), but the thing is, there were at least six published or near publish ready, plus a bunch of short work, so you’re looking at $2000-$400 (that I don’t have) in registrations, and by the time some of them get ready for publication–well, how much does a work change before it’s considered a different work and needs a different copyright?

  • Luc says:

    Thank you for your sage advice. I’m wondering if you know how common it is and if an author should submit an inquiry to an agent of the verbiage on the agent’s website says something like the following: “I understand that – has access to materials and ideas that may be similar to my Material in theme, idea, plot or format. I understand that I will not be entitled to compensation because of the use of any such similar or identical material if such material is created independently by – or its clients.
    5. I hereby release — from any and all liability for loss of, or damage to, any copies of my Material that I may submit to -.”

    The above appears to be so draconian. And, what if an author has already copyright his/her work, sends it for agent inquiry, and the agent accidentally or on purpose allows another author to steal it? If the genuine author has the copyright but signs this agreement, does the original author sign away right to sue for theft? Thank You

  • Brookes says:

    I am a 13 year old aspiring writer and I have been writing a manuscript lately. One day while I was writing on word, a signal told me the word document couldn’t load due to someone else editing it. I have been anxious about the signal because I thought I was the only one that could access the word document. I am worried someone might have stolen my work, so is there a way to insure my precious work is safe?

  • Ferdinand Duka says:

    I have written a manuscript and I would like to publish, but before that, I want to protect it. Could you please tell me what are the steps to do that and please the cost of it.
    Thank you.

  • Irene says:

    I wanted to acknowledge you for setting up this website and responding to so many valid and interesting questions. However, I live in the UK and am not sure how relevant your content is outside the US. Can you clarify?

    Secondly, I was considering joining until I came across “Kathryn takes complex legal agreements and explains them in ways even an author can understand.”

    Professional authors are mostly well-read, level-headed, business-like graduates. Generally we have no trouble understanding contract law and legal jargon. I should be very grateful if this could be removed from an otherwise excellent resource for creative people.

    • Passing Through says:

      Have you read the other comments related to this article? Not all professional (or aspiring) authors are well-read, level-headed, business-like graduates. Some folks had a hard time understanding what was written in the paragraphs above, never mind contract law and legal jargon.

  • Mishkawolf says:

    Hi, I have some reflective writings I would like to sell on a website I created. How do I know that they are protected by the Copyright Law ?

  • Peter says:

    If I write my story as my lived experiences and what I believe happened. Does this protect me from legal action against me?

  • Swan Thompson says:

    Excellent advice throughout!

  • Lori Gath says:

    I’m a freelance artist and getting ready to do my first children’s book and doing my own illustrations. Any advice for a first time writer? I’ve written poetry and sold my artwork many times, but I’m a bit afraid since I’ve had two of my portfolios stolen. One by a old boyfriend, and one by a friend I never knew was jealous and ripped my works up and thrower them in a dumpster I heard from a mutual friend. Most of my work nowdays, I’m 56, I give it sell to family or it hangs on my own walls. I’ll take any advice, thanks!

  • Paula Haenchen says:

    So I’m working on a non-fiction book. I understand the standard practice when approaching potential publishers is to send a cover letter, the first three completed chapters, and an outline for the remainder of the book. How might I prevent the publisher from giving my idea to another, preferred writer?

    • Paula, You cannot control the nefarious behavior of other people. You can only control the actions you take. Research the publishers you plan to send your work to. Review this page from Science Fiction Writers of America to learn how to detect bad practices and publishers who engage in them: Thumbs Down Publishers. Research the publisher by searching their name and the word “review.” Reputable publishers do not steal an author’s work.

  • Tom DiSarro says:

    Great article. Are there any templates regarding typesetting services? Thank you

  • JacketedJen says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve got some creative poetry & prose, which I’m hoping to turn into a book.
    Also, I’m working on a non-fiction book about my life story.
    However, I’ve held off on finding a beta/editor due to a continual concern of creative theft/plagiarism. This is also why I’ve never put any of my work on any blog or social media platforms. I’ve been wondering about how to protect my work on those types of Internet sites, but have desired to post them in the hope of peer input/constructive criticism & feedback.
    I’ve got the original writings, however I’m curious if that alone is enough to protect my intellectual property. Perhaps, I possess a very jaded attitude towards individuals in the Internet communities and culture. But I’ve heard much anecdotal evidence from other writers whose work has been plagiarized or downright stolen and reposted by others in different platforms.
    I don’t feel my works are ready for copyright. But I’m wondering in these settings and posting writings; how do you keep followers from just trimming your name out of the byline and reposting the work as their own??
    Perhaps, it sounds slightly paranoid and overly pessimistic -especially when I’ve no idea why anyone would want to steal my writing- but a contract with professional individuals seems simplistic.
    But in social media or blog forum posting I would think contractual agreements would be impossible for those situations. So, if my works are unpublished and stolen from a follower, how do writers protect themselves in these situations?? Is there even a way to protect your works when posting in those environments?? Or are the only safe ways to keep your works in the professional realm where forms of contact agreements have been arranged??

    • E.N. Hill says:

      Thanks for posting such a detailed question, it’s exactly what I wonder myself. In addition to your question I also want to know if it’s true that posting your writings on social media is a type of publishing that could hinder a professional publisher from accepting the posted work into a book.

    • Dean Price says:

      Great question…much has been on my mind as well. You are NOT paranoid…better to be a bit and save your work, than have it stolen by someone else. Research and knowledge of the process is the best relief of fear. Good luck on your projects!!

  • Rainman says:

    Hello, I am currently writing my life story. A large portion of it got into the hands of someone who was a friend and later became an adversary because of criminal activity on part of their family. I am trying to insure my story is not published or distributed without my permission. What can I do to protect my work?

  • Iain Strathern says:

    Hi Kathryn. Thank you for creating this informational source. I have a number of thought provoking statements I want to put on t-shirts and sell the t-shirts. I don’t want someone else to rip off the statements and print them and sell them as well. In these other questions, people mostly speak about drafts of stories or whatever. Is it possible to copyright these kind of statements I want protected?

  • Tolerance Sphelelo says:

    Can you please help me on how i can protect my unpublished writing.

  • tom james says:

    In a typical arrangement between a writer and a publisher, which party retains the rights to the finished work?
    As a first-time writer, my initial conversations with several ‘non-traditional’ publishers (they charge a fee to assist a writer to self-publish) indicate that their contracts require that if they edit my book manuscript, they then become the owners of the rights to the edited manuscript. I keep the rights to the original manuscript.
    Seems to me that it’s my book, and I should retain all rights…Is this a typical arrangement for such a deal?

  • Mary Costa Garrett says:

    What about sending a copy of the unpublished draft to a lawyer, or have it notarized for verification of your unpublished work?

    • You could do that, Mary, but it won’t be helpful if you have to enforce your rights. The most powerful way to protect yourself is to have a contract with whomever you share your work and that’s not always possible. The second most powerful way to protect your work is to file a copyright application on it. Then you are in a position to issue take downs under the DMCA if someone posts your work online and claims it as their own. Neither Amazon, Facebook, nor Google care about a notarized document, though they may care about what a lawyer might say. But really, they want to see a copyright registration certificate.

  • Angela Russell says:

    Kathryn, thank you for the above advice. May I enquire as to your thoughts on protecting my finished, unpublished manuscript prior to sending to literary agents whilst seeking representation? With thanks in advance. Angela

  • Think Tank says:

    In terms of your Copyright Practice Tip, why is it best to finalize, publish, then file for the copyright registration? Doesn’t the copyright symbol and date of copyright need to be within the published book?

    • The copyright notice on your creative work looks like this: © YEAR YOUR NAME. For purposes of a published work (as opposed to an unpublished work), the year is a reference to the year of publication, not the month and day. The copyright application asks for the date of publication including the month and day (which you will know because you published it on a certain day). You can’t file an application for protection on a published work until after it has been published. That’s the logistical answer.

      As a practical matter, you want to file your application for registration after you’ve published because presumably you’ve published the best version of your work and are finished making changes to it. You have to submit a deposit copy of your work with the Copyright Office with your application and it should be your best version.

      Finally, you’ll notice, if you look at the copyright page of a book, the copyright registration number is not on it. That’s because it takes three or four months for the registration to issue after application is made. You don’t want to wait for that! You want your work out there, selling.

      Great question.

  • Sylvia says:

    Thank you for this valuable information. I wished I had read this info before allowing freelance individuals do the editing and graphics. I used no contract with these individuals. When I submitted manuscript for formatting that’s when I began to feel uncomfortable about submitting my unpublish work to them. So I decided not to move any further with formatting. So far the company has not responded back on how they would dispose of the electronic version of the manuscript. Should I have concerns about this? Thank you for your support and outreach programs.

  • Mary says:

    As a new writer, I’m considering submitting my unfinished work to a Mentor Program for critique through a writers association group. The readers will be published authors who are also members of the group but I will not know who my work is matched to for a critique. Should I be concerned that my ideas or manuscript could be at risk of infringement or is this a safe industry practice?

  • Hannah says:

    What kind of contract or possibly simple agreement would you recommend entering if you were to share your work with an illustrator for your children’s book?

  • Tony Manero says:

    A great piece of advice for the writers submitting their proposal to agencies or beta readers. Being unique in creations or ideas is the most vital goal for many professionals but protecting them is equally important. Better be safe than sorry!

  • Stan K says:

    Thank you for this posting on protecting unpublished writting. To safeguard the storyline, unique characters, and or ideas in a story. Is it inadvisable to ask a close relative, like wife and or daughter in an email to serve as a beta reader?

  • Gloria Adams says:

    Would something be considered published if it’s on a “members only” website?

  • Ayo says:

    How do I protect a document written for a company that contractually agreed to commissioned my work but is claiming they cannot afford to pay my billed hours total amount? This is an unpublished document that I plan to publish and copyright but it is not yet a finalized work. I’m concerned that they will not pay me and keep my work and use it for their business. What exactly are my options in this instance? Thank you in advance for sharing your expertise.

  • Andy Sacks says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    What a great resource! I am also on the verge of submitting my proposal to agencies and your advice was able to nip some concerns in the bud! Look for my remarkable book of stories in bookstores I do hope really soon. I’ll send you a copy, actually. I think I’m now in your email list.



    • Andy,

      Good luck with your proposal. I hope to see your book of stories in my local bookstore (and library for that matter). A personal copy would be nice, as well. I have added you to my list.


  • Kimberly says:

    Thank you Kathryn. Your insight is very helpful for a new writer like me!

  • Mason Bolton says:

    Really enjoyable and informative for a new writer like me. Thanks!

  • Jerri says:

    Thank you so very much for providing this information. My first rodeo.
    Jerri in Florida

  • Gloria Goodman says:

    Hello from California Kathryn!
    Your information is so helpful. I’m 80 years old, have been writing since a teen but for fear I’ve yet to publish anything. Have taken several English and Writing courses but your advise has been most inspiring and encouraging. Can’t thank you enough.
    G. Goodman

  • Ellen says:

    This is interesting. I’m on the phone with the U.S. Copyright office, asking if literary characters are subject to copyright. However, when I read Wikipedia (knowing this is material submitted by the general public), authors cite legal precedents that literary characters are subject to copyright.

    The woman at the office could not explain this contradiction.

    • Ellen,

      Protection of fictional characters is an interesting topic. Remember that copyright protects expression of an idea, not the idea itself. For example, the idea of a loner, gritty, rule-breaking police detective who is always getting into trouble with his boss is not protected. But if you tried to write about John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport complete with the scar on his face, you would risk an infringement claim. You have to create your own loner, gritty detective. Another way to protect fictional characters is through trademark. Mickey Mouse, for example, has trademark protection. When you think of Mickey, you think of Disney. Great question. I’ll add the topic to my list of things to write about on this blog. Thanks.

      On a final note, the folks at the Copyright Office know a great deal about the application process and settled issues of copyright law but may not be able to answer you on still open questions which are being decided by courts all over the country.


  • […] bloggers focused on author rights this week. Kathryn Goldman explains how to protect your unpublished writing, Nathan Bransford has your author rights in a nutshell, and John Doppler reports on a new form of […]

  • Mary says:

    This article is very helpful and answers questions I had about my unpublished children’s book. As a new writer, I too was concerned with sharing my work. Your blog is a wealth of information. Thank you!

  • Marion Kok says:

    Greetings Kathryn, you have shared so much valuable information! Thank you for all you input and I love the fact you opened up the Creative Law Center!

  • Jon says:

    Thanks Kathryn! That answers my question perfectly!

  • Debbie says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    I am so thankful to you for sharing the information about protecting unpublished work. Being a new author with my first draft in the editing stages, your information helps to prepare me for when I start sharing my works with others. I was a little worried about sharing it, but you have made me feel more relaxed.

    Again, thanks so much!

    • You’re welcome, Debbie. I’m glad you found it helpful. It’s an easy issue to handle once you know how.

  • Dear Kathryn:
    Your blog is a valuable service to writers; especially those who are either brand new, or relatively new to the field and/or those who are self-published. I imagine that your tips (ie. about beta readers for example) are of use to commercially published writers as well. Thank you so much!!

    I am a member of an on line writer’s community and will be happy to share a link to your blog, IF you allow it. ?

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