Something I’ve heard many times from new and would-be authors is the fear that if they send off their work to a publisher or magazine that work will be ‘stolen’. Obviously this fear can prove quite damaging to your writing career given that no-one will actually buy your writing if you never give them an opportunity to read it!
Before I feed any paranoid ideas around this by giving you some tips about how to protect your legally binding copyright, let me first explain why a publisher, or at least a reputable publisher, will not steal your writing.
The writing community is generally pretty tight-knit, even if they don’t physically get together and catch up (which most do, and I highly recommend) they are always connected through email, Twitter and blogs. So if any publisher were to ‘steal’ an idea or piece of work, everyone would know about it, and pretty quickly too! So do a search on your prospective publisher and see what people are saying about them online. Places like duotope and ralan also provide a commentary on what a publisher is like, so use these resources.
For major publishers I would suggest you do not even need to do such a search. There is nothing a publisher would like more than to discover the next fantastic author. A publishing house is also not looking for a great story, they are looking for an author with longevity who can provide them with many stories. So if they see merit in your work they are more likely to sign you for a three book deal than try to lift your idea.
But if this still isn’t enough to convince you, this is five years of your hard work after all, how can you protect your copyright? One of the most basic ways is to save it to a disk or flash drive, seal it in a letter (a line of continuous sticky tape across the top, but under the stamp is a good seal) and post it to yourself. The post-mark of the postal system is a legally provable date. A more modern way (which I am not sure if it has been used in court but would probably have a lot of weight) is to email the attachment to yourself, which will clearly display the date*.
I know there are a lot of places that charge you money to register your copyright, but the fact is that the moment you write your piece you are covered by copyright. All you need to do to protect that copyright is to prove you wrote it first. You don’t need to spend lots of money to register it.
One word of warning for the paranoid before they project their claims of injustice; just because the place you sent your novel to releases one with a similar theme soon after they reject yours does not mean they stole your idea. Often similar themes come through at the same time, so don’t assume they stole your idea. You probably tapped into the collective unconscious and wrote a similar story, after all, there is no such thing as an original idea.
*Please seek legal advice on this matter if you wish to use it. I do not have any legal qualifications and as such cannot give legal advice.