Publishing fiction anonymously online
April 12, 2010 12:14 PM   Subscribe

How can I publish my fiction online anonymously and still retain the copyright?

I've been writing these stories that contain some violence and profanity. Last night I even went nuts and started writing a sex scene. I've been thinking of putting the stories on a website.

The problem is, I have a straight job. If my coworkers saw this stuff with my name attached to it, I don't know if I'd necessarily get fired but it wouldn't be too great. And I could get fired. It has actually happened at my workplace with some incautious Web postings.

OK, no worries, use a pseudonym. But let's say that later a publisher wanted to put out a print edition. (I'll pause here to let you finish laughing and wipe the coffee off your screen and keyboard. If it helps, try to imagine an alternate universe where that could happen.)

If I use a pseudonym on the website and thoroughly conceal my identity, would I still own the copyright?

Can one publish things anonymously on the Web and still have the right to sell them and the ability to protect them?

I'd be grateful for any advice, comments, or horrifying anecdotes.

posted by eeby to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yes, you can publish things anonymously without losing copyright protection. Under 17 U.S.C. 302(c), "[i]n the case of an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication, or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first."
posted by Pontius Pilate at 12:27 PM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: You automatically own a copyright as soon as you create it. As far as registering the copyright and obtaining all protections available under the law, you would register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office (see this for forms and how to register). That's best done immediately after the work is created. It really won't stop anyone from copying it or plagiarizing it, but if it somehow ends up appearing in the next Harry Potter story you'll have a significantly easier legal recourse.
posted by crapmatic at 12:31 PM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: It is possible to file a copyright registration listing an anonymous or pseudonymous author. Although registration isn't necessary to "protect" works (the copyright exists when an original work is "fixed" -- i.e., when you write it down / type it up), registration is necessary before you file a lawsuit for copyrigth infringement or to receive statutory damages for infringement, etc. If you were REALLY paranoid about your identity being disclosed, you might be worried that your identity might be revealed in your hypothetical copyright infringement lawsuits. That seems to be a very far-off eventuality, though.

Protecting works that are placed on the web, under various forms of licensing or DRM or otherwise, doesn't strike me as that different for anonymous or pseudonymous authors.

If you are submitting a work to be "published" on a website, whether you own/retain the copyright is a matter of the contractual arrangement between you and the publishing website. If you are worried about copyright ownership issues, watch out for "work for hire" provisions. But that issue isn't limited to anonymous or pseudonymous authors, either.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 12:33 PM on April 12, 2010

(I forgot to mention if you're NOT in the U.S. then check with your national government's copyright office!)
posted by crapmatic at 12:38 PM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: I'm not your lawyer, but this seems pretty straightforward. Anonymous and pseudonymous works are published all the time, and absent a subpoena, publishers are pretty good about keeping the identity of their authors under wraps when appropriate.
Copyright automatically exists for any work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium. Publication of the author's name is not an element of copyright. Ergo, I'd get yourself a throwaway email address for interested parties to contact you by and go nuts.
posted by valkyryn at 12:43 PM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: If someone were to contest your copyright, how would you prove that you were indeed the author? That's the real issue here.

You could try a Trusted Timestamp service, but I don't know the legal precedent for such. The old trick of "mailing yourself a copy and leaving it sealed" is another old trope that, I don't think holds up in court.

Basically - whether you put your name to it or not - there are two issues.

1. Can you prove that you are the author? Registering with the Copyright Office helps in this regard.

2. Would you want to? Since you want to be anonymous, would you want to fight this fight?

Other than a scenario where someone would contest your authorship, you're fine.
posted by MesoFilter at 1:21 PM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: The old trick of "mailing yourself a copy and leaving it sealed" is another old trope that, I don't think holds up in court.

I don't know whether it's been tested in court but there's a good reason it shouldn't hold up: otherwise, you could simply mail yourself an empty, unsealed envelope as soon as you got the inkling that you might one day want to fraudulently claim you created a work earlier than you actually did.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 3:16 PM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: Can one publish things anonymously on the Web and still have the right to sell them and the ability to protect them?

The answer to this, as others have said, is yes. That said, as someone who acquires books for a publisher, I'll like to point out that in my experience, posting things in full online will dramatically reduce the chances that you'll be able to sell the work. If publication is something that you're serious about pursuing, I'd suggest that you consider not posting the whole piece online, or posting it behind some sort of wall. (Password protected blog or LiveJournal, for example.)
posted by MeghanC at 4:56 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers, everyone. Very helpful.

MeghanC: I know you're right. I was actually thinking of doing it as a serial. That way it wouldn't be the whole work.

If I get two thirds of the way through and it turns out that people like it, then I suppose a publisher might take interest.

In any case, if I got some readers that would be good right there.
posted by eeby at 11:37 AM on April 14, 2010

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