Your 5-Minute Guide To Copyright, Piracy And Plagiarism

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There are a lot of rumors about the ins and outs of copyright. What it is and how you get it are often misunderstood with the effect that many authors worry about areas in which they’re entirely safe.

With that in mind, now might be a good time to familiarize yourself with the two biggest copyright worries that plague authors: plagiarism and piracy.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, lets have a look at the definition of that all-important term.


Possessing copyright means you have the exclusive rights to use and distribute content. Though you can sell various rights associated with copyright (most usually the right to distribute it) this extends your rights to others rather than restricting you.

As soon as your work takes a physical form, you automatically own the copyright. This means that as soon as your words are down on paper you have complete legal protection from plagiarism. These rights are established in the Copyright Act of 1976 in the US and in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 in the UK.

It is only possible to possess the copyright of physical content: you have copyright protection over your words but not over the ideas behind them.

The only time you will not possess copyright for something you create is when you do so under a contract that specifically does not allow you copyright. This is most common in trades such as ghost-writing, where possession of copyright is part of the service provided.

As soon as your work takes a physical form, you automatically own the copyright.Click To Tweet


Plagiarism is when someone takes your words and attempts to pass them off as their own. Strangely, it manages to be both one of the greatest worries for new authors and one of the least common things that happens to them.

Plagiarism of fiction hardly ever happens. Successfully plagiarizing a work of fiction would involve stealing someone’s work, selling it for a notable amount and not being caught by a legal system which leaves zero room for doubt in the matter. Plagiarism of fiction is a high effort, high risk, low-return crime and is unlikely to happen to all but the best-selling authors.

Even if someone tries to use your ideas, the result is unlikely to be finished, good, or similar to your own. Imagine taking someone’s ideas and trying to write a better story than them without using anything they’ve already written down.

There are no new stories. It all depends how you handle them.
– Jude Deveraux

No publisher or agent would dream of stealing your work and it’s highly unlikely that your friends are going to have the desire, drive and ability to write a story based on your ideas.

If you’re particularly worried, then you can register your work with the United States Copyright Office or with commercial services in some countries. Registering your work provides evidence that it existed at a certain time.


Piracy is when someone replicates a copy of work and sells it without permission. If you record your own movie using the script from Forest Gump, that’s plagiarism. If you copy the information from the original movie’s DVD and then distribute it without permission, that’s piracy.

Piracy is a more pressing worry than plagiarism, especially with digital content. Replicating ebooks is incredibly simple and distribution channels aren’t hard to find but don’t start worrying just yet.

Imagine a book shop where you’re allowed to read as much of a book as you like before buying it. You just imagined the majority of book shops, and certainly most chain stores. In many cases, the only difference in ebook piracy is that potential customers can browse their unpurchased copy on the bus.

eBooks tend to be cheap and easy to download and many customers have ongoing relationships with ebook stores. Add to this the actions of online sellers and government bodies to combat piracy and the natural impulse not to steal and it’s unlikely that you’ll see a noticeable decrease in sales even if your book is targeted for piracy (something which is very unlikely for most authors anyway).

In fact, some authors have controversially claimed that piracy has helped their sales. Though lost sales are difficult to quantify, research suggests that instances of piracy don’t have a direct correlation with lost sales, and in fact may lead to increased sales in some cases. Paulo Coelho even pirated his own books, ensuring they’re available to download for free on pirate websites, and noticed an increase in legitimate sales:

The sales increased a lot. There is no conflict between the fact that you have something for free. It stimulates people to read and to buy, because they have the possibility of trying.
– Paulo Coelho

Surprisingly, one of the most effective anti-piracy methods you can adopt is to make your work widely available and affordable. While you certainly should never feel bullied into lowering your price, there is a large percentage of pirate downloaders who have a strict (though less than mainstream) morality about what they’ll download, stealing only what they claim they’d never purchase at the set price.

I love pirates. I get money from them all the time. They send me money thanking me because they loved my book. I sometimes go onto torrent sites and if I don’t see my book there I feel bad because it means I’m not in demand.
– Hugh Howey

Of course it’s never fun to have someone steal your work, and as well as being relatively uncommon (just because a book is available to download illegally doesn’t mean it’s happening en masse), piracy is also decidedly illegal. Full legal protection is available to you if you find you are the victim of piracy.

Again, where piracy does take place it usually targets best-selling authors but if piracy is a worry for you then there are options. You can search for and report websites offering pirated copies using Google Alerts or try services such as MUSO or NetNames which provide a range of anti-piracy services.

Paulo Coelho's sales increased when he pirated his own books.Click To Tweet

Sleep easy

Plagiarism and piracy cost authors more sleepless nights than they’re worth. Plagiarism is incredibly uncommon in fiction and while you’re very unlikely to have your work stolen, you have complete legal protection if it is.

While some would like more assurances on idea theft, it too is very uncommon and the chances of someone who steals your idea presenting it better than you are slim. If you’re truly worried about friends and acquaintances lifting your ideas then keeping them to yourself may help your peace of mind but don’t worry about professional services such as proof readers or agents.

While ebook piracy is certainly a problem for the industry, as it invalidates distribution rights, it’s unquantifiable what effect it has on the individual author. Estimates range from loss of earnings to a dramatic rise in sales, but one thing’s for certain: the danger to self-published authors is minimal.

In the event of piracy, there are steps you and your publisher can take but prior to noticing a problem any time spent worrying is wasted. Focus your attention on the brilliant characters and gripping events that will have customers falling over themselves to buy your next novel.

Your 5-minute Guide To Copyright, Piracy and PlagiarismClick To Tweet

For information on which online bookseller is right for you check out our articles on Amazon’s KDP Select and the iBookstore, or for a comparison of ebook marketing services try our BookBub vs BookGorilla vs The Fussy Librarian for a comprehensive breakdown on which site best suits your promotional needs.


3 thoughts on “Your 5-Minute Guide To Copyright, Piracy And Plagiarism”

  1. I read a Forbes article that describes piracy as a service problem So the only way that you can really mitigate the problem is by offering competitive and convenient service aka making your work accessible and affordable. Thanks for this informative read!

    1. Standout Books

      That’s a good point, there’s a Swedish study that showed that streaming services had halved the number of people who were downloading music illegally in Scandinavia. Read more here. People don’t necessarily (all) want to steal creative work, they just want a way to consume it that is quick, easy and affordable.

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