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I am about to self-publish my first novel using a pen name. I will be registering the copyright this week.

My question is, on the first page of the novel where you put all the publishing/copyright info, should I say that the novel is copyright of my pen name, in order to protect my true identity?

Example, let's say my real name is Jane Smith and my pen name is Denise Smithers. I will register the copyright with the copyright office using my real name (but will also write what my pen name is), but I don't want to put that on the book as I want that kept private.

If I write (c) Denise Smithers, will that imply that the copyright belongs to the actual person behind the pen name?

I know that the copyright belongs to me anyway, but I still want to add that copyright line to my novel.

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In the U.S., you are not required to include your real name on a copyright registration:

If you write under a pseudonym and do not want to have your identity revealed in the Copyright Office’s records, give your pseudonym and identify it as such on your application. You can leave blank the space for the name of the author. If an author’s name is given, it will become part of the Office’s online public records, which are accessible by Internet. [...]

In no case should you omit the name of the copyright claimant. You can use a pseudonym for the claimant name. But be aware that if a copyright is held under a fictitious name, business dealings involving the copyrighted property may raise questions about its ownership. Consult an attorney for legal advice on this matter.

Therefore, a pseudonym seems like a perfectly legitimate name for a copyright notice, considering that it is also a legally valid name for an official registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. As noted above, this may complicate your ability to prove your right to litigate against copyright infringement, but it does not actually diminish your right to do so if you can successfully validate your identity as the copyright holder.

  • Thank you very much apsillers. I wonder if instead of writing (c)my pen name, I should just write something like "Copyright has been filed with the US Copyright Office." Do you think that would be a good idea? Thanks again. – MoniqueH Jun 13 '16 at 16:51
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You might want to use a trick sometimes used online for simple proof of ownership/responsibility for otherwise anonymous material. It needs a tiny amount of knowhow but really very little.

Since you can register the text under your pen-name, the only question is proving that pen-name is you. You could go to a lawyer but that costs and who knows what it proves, maybe the true author was a neighbour or housemate (says a skeptic). There's a better way, if that's something you want to do, and it's quick, free and almost certainly foolproof.

  1. Think up a sentence, something like "my name is Jane Smith of 61 High Road, and I wrote the book XYZ and filed it for copyright as Denise Smithers on 17 July 2016" Don't forget the sentence - write it down exactly as you type it, to the last letter and space, and exact upper/lower case. (If in doubt leave out all spaces and punctuation, it'll still work).
  2. Now, go online and Google "sha256 online" and look for a website where you paste a text and it calculates the "sha256" hash of the text, which will be a short(ish) string of 64 letters and numbers. Write that string in a corner or back of the application form or even the book itself.
  3. Done.

I have no idea if you know anything about hashes so here's what this does. A "hash function" is a method that takes one piece of data (your text) and convert it to another (the string of letters/numbers) in such a way that it's virtually impossible to figure a text that the hash converts into that string, or to to figure the text out if all you have is the string (by "virtually impossible" I mean "would require a few billion lifetimes of the universe with current technology"). There are many hash functions, sha256 is a very well known modern hash likely to be secure against reversing for a long time. And even a single character different (a space, a single instead of double quote) will give a completely different result. So nobody can do anything with the string. But to prove you are the author, all you have to do is reveal that you know the text that, when hashed using sha256, gives that string of letters and numbers. Short of theft you are the only person who can do it, and that is the only string that will do it (technically not true but be prepared for the sun to die a few million times over before its likely someone else finds a different text using current computing technology). Therefore possessing that knowledge means you have a guarantee that you can prove authorship or copyright registration any time you like, if you wish to. Sha256 should be good for some decades, beyond that we get into quantum computing but even so it probably won't be practical to break in your lifetime.

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    very clever and technically effective, but has anything like this ever been tested in court? – Alex R Sep 12 '17 at 19:10
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    Its about 5 minutes work. Probably about 90 seconds with practice, of which 60 is just writing down a sensible sentence. The OP assumes it's worth it to them, and we don't need to second guess that. The reason is more often to issue takedown requests or prevent copying, or if it becomes famous. – Stilez Sep 14 '17 at 7:51
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    It can't hurt to do this. – mark b Sep 14 '17 at 17:54
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    Interesting idea. I'd include my name and maybe other identifying information it it, like in the example. If you just picked a random phrase, no matter how original, then for this to work you would have to prove that you invented that phrase. The fact that you know the phrase would be interesting but not necessarily definitive: you might have stolen it from the original author. But in any case, as Alex R says, I wonder if a court would find this convincing. – Jay Mar 25 '18 at 1:38
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    @Stilez I'd assume the date would be on the application itself, and the capitalization and small variations in the template add a few bits, but not likely enough to make a huge difference. Anyway, my main point is just that you have to be careful about this sort of thing if privacy is critical. – Chris Oct 21 '18 at 3:24
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Put the copyright notice in the book with your pseudonym, "copyright 2018 by Denise Smithers". This is very common.

The next question is whether to include your real name on the copyright registration. If you do include your real name, it is public record, and anyone who is willing to go to the effort can track you down. If you don't include your real name, then if you ever try to sue someone for violating your copyright, you will have to prove that you are the author.

That comes down to why you are using a pseudonym. If you are using a pseudonym because you don't want people to know that you are the real author -- you don't want your mother to know that you write steamy sex novels, you don't want your Hollywood friends to know that you write conservative political books, etc -- then you probably don't want to put your real name on the copyright registration. Though unless your books become best-sellers, it's unlikely anyone will make the effort to track down the real author. Unless you say that the name is a pseudonym, readers will have no way to know, and will just assume it's the author's real name. Few people assume that they should recognize the name of the author of a book. Personally, I've never checked if the author on a book I read was a pseudonym.

If you're using a pseudonym because you think it sounds better, like your real name is Bambi Desire and you don't think that sounds like the name for the author of a book on particle physics, or your real name is Reginald Higgenbottom III and you don't think that sounds right for the author of a gritty crime novel, etc, then it really doesn't matter if someone tracks down your real name, so you might as well put your real name on the copyright registration.

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