First off: I’m not a lawyer. Let’s just get that cleared up!
If there’s one thing most new self-published authors fear, it’s having their work stolen! What if they send it off to an agent or beta reader, and that person just goes ahead and publishes it under their name and it sells millions of copies in dozens of languages???
Spoiler alert: that won’t happen.
If you’re a brand new author and have no other claim to fame, nobody is going to steal your work. Why? Because people only steal things that are valuable, things that could make them money. And no thief is going to take the time and effort to nab an unknown’s manuscript (which may not even be any good) and pray it makes a couple bucks.
But maybe you would like your work copyrighted all the same. Just in case. Well, you’re in luck! The moment your work is created in any tangible form, whether that be a loose-leaf binder or a Word file saved on your laptop, that work is copyrighted to you. You can check out this article for more information on that.
Here’s the caveat on that: if you haven’t filed with the US government (or your nation’s government) and sent them a copy of your work to hold a copyright in their library, trying to sue someone for damages will be harder than if the only copyright you have is the fact that it’s saved on your hardrive.
But there’s a caveat to that caveat: that is again an unlikely scenario. If on the incredible off-chance someone steals your work, it’s even more unlikely that they’d actually turn a profit, especially not enough that would make litigation worth it in the end.
So what have we learned today? Sleep at peace! Your work is copyrighted the moment you put pen to paper. You can file with the government if you like (it’s relatively easy and cheap), but it’s unlikely to ever pay off. Thievery of indie authors’ work is rare, and even more rare would the profit from their theft be worth trying to take in court. Hell, you’d be more likely to die on the drive to the courthouse than to have your work stolen.
Stephen King needs copyright protection. You and I don’t.