In writing plots and storylines are often recycled, reused, borrowed, stolen, and plagiarized. The question for most authors quickly becomes “when does borrowing become stealing?” When is it okay to use someone else’s idea and when do you have to give credit, or just refrain from using it altogether?

Copyrights protect the original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. Works that are not in a tangible form cannot generally be copyrighted. So the two key things to take away are that your work has to be both original, meaning you must have thought of it yourself, and tangible, meaning it has to be written down. Lists, summaries, ideas that are common knowledge, etc. cannot usually be copyrighted. Names are also ineligible for copyright, although some may be eligible for trademark.

A copyright goes into effect as soon as you write your work down. Keep in mind however that proving you are the original owner if your work is stolen is a bit difficult unless your work is registered (there is a fee). The poor man’s copyright, mailing yourself an envelope containing your work so that it is dated but not opening it, has never been proven to my knowledge in court.

So that dream that your friend told you about that you used as inspiration is not protected under law, neither is the short little paragraph describing the plot of your book. Once your book is written then it is copyrighted, but if you ever have to go to court it will be up to you to prove that it was willfully and intentionally stolen. Which brings us to our next topic.

When are you able to take action for copyright infringement. As I am not a lawyer, I will keep this short. You can take someone to court at any time. The problem comes in proving your case. From what I understand there are two parts to any litigation. Intent and damages. You have to prove that the person you are suing actually intended to steal from you, which usually involves proving that he had access to your work, knew that it was yours, and still used it without permission. This is why your idea has to be original. If it is something that anyone could have thought up, you won’t be able to prove intent. Next is you have to show that the infraction damaged you in some way. Loss of income will probably be what an author’s damages are, but keep in mind that at least one of you, you or the person you are suing, will have had to make some income off of the work. If your work is free to the public, you may have to find some other grounds for suing, unless your rival sold the work and made money.

For more information here is the official US website for copyright.

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