Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Copyright — And Focus on Craft Instead

Why You Shouldn’t Worry About Copyright — And Focus on Craft Instead

You’ve been working hard on your book, crafting your characters, creating the plot arc, developing scenes and providing structure for your story.

It’s all coming together. The story flows, your beta readers love it, the editor has clarified your prose and the book cover is spectacular. You are thrilled to hit publish.

As if in a dream, sales begin to grow.

Then, the dream becomes a nightmare: someone else takes your story. At least they seem to have taken your story. Scene after scene appear in someone else’s work as though lifted from your own. It’s not exactly the same, but nearly.

Surely, they can’t do this, you think. This must be illegal, at least unethical. Amazon should be told, you think. The other author’s work should be taken down.

But Amazon won’t take down the work because there is no plagiarism. There is no infringement. Your work is not protected.

Confused? Here’s why your work may not be protected and what you can do to make sure it is.

There are only so many ways to depict common themes

Perhaps you’ve written a gritty coming-of-age story about a young man whose tumultuous upbringing exposes him to a life of crime and violence which he is able to overcome. It’s about life in a hardened inner-city neighborhood, complete with drug corners, intimidating dealers, crack houses, prostitutes and chases with the “five-oh.”

The fact is, any story about life in America’s decaying inner cities will have these scenes and characters. It’s nearly impossible to tell a story in that setting without those elements.

Standard depictions of common themes are in the public domain. Scenes which are expected in the treatment of any given topic are not protected by copyright law. They are considered scènes à faire, or scenes that must be done.

If someone else writes a book with a theme similar to yours, there are going to be characters and scenes that will be common to both. Your use of those common elements will not be protected by copyright law.

Develop complexity

If you want your work to be protected, do not write in clichés. Be uncommon. Use your voice to give your story a life of its own.

Be Uncommon

Focus on developing feel, character, plot, mood, pace, setting and the sequence of events in your story. These are the things that make your work unique and give it protection under the law — and in the eyes of your readers, who often respect originality and disdain copyists.

The prostitute with a heart of gold is a character found in so many stories that she has become trite. But if she is written thoughtfully, as a complex character with specific conflicting attributes, the prostitute is no longer a cliché. She will have added richness for your readers. The richness will provide greater protection under copyright law because you have wrapped a standard character in unique expression.

It is the expression you want to protect, not the idea of the prostitute with a heart of gold.

Engage the senses

Although a scene may be common, a fully expressed mood that permeates a reader’s senses while reading the scene is unique.  Marianne Richmond has a great post demonstrating how to add further depth to your writing with respect to the senses.

In our story of the inner-city youth overcoming the odds, reach beyond the standard sketch of the drug dealers on the corner. Provide an enhanced description of the smell of the unwashed junkie buying his hit, the sodden feel of the dollar bills, and the oppressive heat radiating off the concrete shimmering with broken vials.

Tell your story uniquely

An inevitable scene in a city-is-tough story is the fight scene when the protagonist either gets beaten into submission by the street lord or acquits himself in combat well enough to earn respect and some measure of peace. Think of The Karate Kid.

Dig into that fight scene in a way that makes it unlike others to develop a scene with unique description and pace.

Avoiding clichés in your writing will help you produce a better, stronger and more engaging book. Then, if someone does copy your work, you will have a greater claim of protection and Amazon may remove the offender’s book and perhaps even ban that writer from KDP — potentially faster justice than a lawsuit.

How have you kept your work protected from copycats?

Filed Under: Craft


  • Derek says:

    This was informative. Thanks for the information!

    If you don’t mind me asking, what are your thoughts on posting your stories on a personal blog/website. Is it something you shouldn’t do if you are considering future print publishing? I’ve read a few different takes on this in blogs, but nothing definitive or authoritative about it, and it’s something I’ve wondered about.

    • Derek,

      There are two answers to your question about whether posting your stories on a personal web site is a good idea if you are planning to publish them later in print (and they’re not “yes” and “no”).

      As a legal matter, you are the owner of the copyright in the stories you write. So, you can reproduce those stories anywhere and anytime you choose. Even if your stories appear on someone else’s blog, you hold the copyright to them unless you’ve signed it away in a contract. Posting them in a blog then reprinting in the future is not a legal problem.

      As a business matter, the question is more about whether posting them on your blog will diminish the stories’ value when they are published in print in the future. I think the answer depends on your audience, the quantity and the variety of your work. I can tell you that just last week, I bought a book from a writer who gathered many of his blog posts from over the years and published them in a single volume. I happen to like this guy’s style, I read his blog regularly and I like the idea of having these particular posts all in one place — on my bookshelf. The book is not his entire blog or body of work by any stretch, he’s been writing for years. By selecting certain posts and putting them together in print, he made them more valuable to me.

      As a legal matter, the definitive answer is you can do it. As a practical matter, the definitive answer is maybe you will want to do it or maybe you won’t.


      • Catherine Burns says:

        Thank you Kathryn I have been wondering about this situation myself. I am a fairly new author and I am considering creating a website to display some of my work. Your information has provided me with food for thought. So much to consider at times it is overwhelming.
        Thank you,

  • Hi-

    This was a very informative and motivating post. Thanks.

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