11 Things Every Writer Should Know About Copyrights

Large copyright sign made of jigsaw puzzle pieces1.   Who owns a copyright?

As soon as you put an idea into a fixed form, whether on a pad of paper, a hard drive, a smart phone or a recording device, you own the copyright in that creation. Your first draft, riddled with typos, inconsistencies and clichés, is protected by copyright law whether or not you polish it, publish it, register it or mark it with a ©.

The only exception is “works made for hire” when the employer, or in some cases the person commissioning the work, owns the copyright.  See my earlier post about Work-for-hire.

If you collaborate on a project, then all the creators jointly own the copyright.

2.  What does copyright ownership mean?

As the owner of a U.S. copyright, you have the exclusive right to do, or to authorize others to do, the following:

  • Reproduce the work in books or other forms and devices;
  • Sell, distribute, and commercially exploit the work;
  • Create derivative works, such as translations, adaptations, sequels, and abridgements; and
  • Display or perform the work publicly, either live or in recorded form.

If anyone violates those exclusive rights, you have a claim of infringement against the wrongdoer. Of course, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. The most common is Fair Use, which I will describe in a later post.

The U.S. Copyright Office has a number of informative circulars on topics from registering poems to licensing.

3. What’s protected by copyright law?

Literary works, musical works including lyrics, dramatic works, pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, sound recordings, architectural works, and pantomimes and choreographic works if fixed in tangible form such as a video recording.

What about characters and settings? Maybe. If a character is as fully developed as Harry Potter or a setting as distinctive as Panem in The Hunger Games, the creator might be able to claim copyright protection. But consider this a caution against writing something too reminiscent of a well-known character or setting. You could find yourself on the receiving end of some nasty and unsettling lawyer letters.

4. What’s NOT protected by copyright law?

  • Titles, names, short phrases, slogans, although you might be able to register these as trademarks. See my earlier post Can Book Titles Be Protected?
  • Raw data and objective information such as test results and statistics, although the method of organization, commentary and analysis are copyrightable. A listing of information, such as phone numbers and addresses in a residential phone book, is not copyrightable.
  • Works that have not been fixed into a tangible form of expression, such as improvisational performances and choreographic works which have not been written or recorded.
  • Ideas, procedures, methods, concepts, principles, and discoveries. A description, explanation, treatment, summary or illustration of any of these is copyrightable, but not the underlying concept. I’ll elaborate on protecting ideas in a later post.

books eunice sleepyneko5.  Is a copyright notice required?

Not technically, but use it anyway. Put it near the front of your book. If your work is property marked, then an unauthorized used may not claim that he or she was “innocent” and you may be able to recover a larger award.

The copyright notice has three parts.

  1. © or Copyright .
  2. Year of first publication, which generally means the year the work was first distributed to the public. On unpublished material, the notice should read: “Unpublished Work © year author.
  3. Name of copyright owner, which may be a pen name or the name of an entity such as a corporation. If there are more than one copyright owner, name all of them.

You should add “All Rights Reserved” because the phrase is required in some foreign countries.

6. Are copyrights transferable?

Oh yes. And they are sliced and diced into various pieces.

You may transfer the entire interest in the copyright, but that is very rarely done. Instead, most writers grant licenses. A license is a right to use only; you, the creator, retain actual ownership of the copyrighted work. Licenses may be exclusive or non-exclusive, world-wide or geographically restricted, short-term or perpetual, royalty-free or royalty-paying, limited to particular media such as audio books, print, ebooks or a particular language; the permutations are extensive.  If you grant licenses, be as specific as possible. Put everything in writing. Vague descriptions and fuzzy details are not your friends. Details are. Examples are. Be redundant, precise and lawyerly. There is no way to overdo it.

7.  Will I ever get back my copyright?

A license agreement is an on-going agreement. If the licensee fails to perform as promised, then you may be able to terminate the license. For instance, if your publisher fails to release your book within the time stated in your contract or fails to pay royalties, you may be able to terminate. But team up with an experienced attorney before you start sending termination threats.

Under current law, any grant of rights, whether an assignment or license, is terminable after thirty-five years. This provision was intended to benefit artists who, for a few dollars, sold creations that went on to be worth millions. The classic example is the case of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who sold the rights to Superman for $130 in 1940. These artists and their families have fought for decades to regain their rights or a share of the profits.

8. Is publication required?

Not anymore. However, publication (i. e.; distribution to the public) is still important. The date of publication may determine the duration of the copyright. The year of publication should be included in the copyright notice in order to inform the public of the copyright claim and year of commencement.

9. How long will my copyright last?

A copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. If there are two or more authors, use the life of the last surviving author plus 70 years. If the author is a corporation or other entity, then the copyright lasts 95 years from first publication, but not longer than 120 years after creation of the copyrighted material.

10.  Should I register my work with the U.S. Copyright Office?

Absolutely. Registration establishes a public, searchable record of your claim and is required before an infringement suit may be filed. Prompt registration (within three months following publication) increases the damages you might recover in an infringement action. Register your work as soon as it is in reasonably finished form. On-line registration is currently $35, so there is no excuse for delay. You then mail in two copies of your work.

11. Is my copyright international?

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as an international copyright. However, many countries have adopted laws and signed treaties which provide reciprocal recognition of copyrights.

But no law is bulletproof protection against infringement. If your book is at all successful, then it’s likely to be pirated. If the infringers are overseas, there is little you can do without spending an inordinate amount of time and money. It’s best to accept a certain level of piracy as part of the business and move on.

Do you have questions? Please post them in comments. I would love to know.

All photos used under Creative Commons Attribution License 
Copyright puzzle pieces by Horia Varlan on Flickr
Books by  Eunice Sleepyneko on Flickr
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30 responses to “11 Things Every Writer Should Know About Copyrights”

  1. Liz says:

    Hello,
    You have a great blog, thank you for being so generous with your expertise. I published a book through Amazon and CreateSpace in May 2014. I have now hired a book promoter/marketer who is trying to drum up more sales for the book while I work on the sequel. They are improving the layout and design of the book, but all content remains unchanged. They are urging me to use 2015 in the copyright notice for the “new” layout, instead of 2014–strictly for marketing reasons, so that I’m not at a disadvantage with distributors. I’m aware that large publishers use the subsequent year in the copyright notice for books published after Sept. 1, to give them 16 months of marketing “play” for books. I have been combing the interwebs and cannot find a clear answer on the risks of post-dating the copyright notice like this. As an aside, I haven’t filed the copyright registration but plan to do so using the correct 2014 publication date. Thanks if you have time to answer this.

    • Great question. I too would be uncomfortable putting in a later date.
      But let’s think about this. How would the date make a difference?
      Since a copyright notice is no longer required in order for a copyright to be valid, there should be some flexibility in what it says, including the date. The date will not affect the duration of the copyright, since that is determined by how long you live. I suppose if someone were to infringe your work in 2014, they might point to the 2015 date as a defense, but all that is highly unlikely. So the date may not really matter.
      Would your publicist be open to having two dates (2014, 2015)? That would be appropriate if you added new material in 2015, such as the new cover.
      I will ask around to see if I can come up with any more info. In the meantime, anyone who has an opinion on the matter, please leave a comment.

  2. Gianna O'Brien says:

    Hi there,

    Are cliches protected by copyright ?

    Thanks,
    Gianna

    • If you mean expressions such as ‘the early bird gets the worm,’ such expressions are not protected by copyright because we don’t know who created them and they are so old, any copyright would have expired.
      Similarly, stereotypical characters, such as the tough, talking gangster, and settings, such as an dusty town in the old West, are also not protected by copyright.

  3. Linda S says:

    Great article! I stumbled on your website and the information is so valuable, thank you! I have a few questions, if you don’t mind.
    –My novel’s main character works works for an ad agency and within my book, I’ve made up company names and some of my chapters describe her pitching the client’s business (coming up with slogans and ideas for them, etc.). All the names and slogans I made up are fictitious, but do I need to double-check if there actually is a company by that name? Or is that statement at the beginning of the book “this book is a work of fiction and any resemblance…” suffice?
    –Am I allowed to use the name of real places in my book? For example, if a character visits The Smithsonian Museum or a city event and describes things she sees, is that okay? Is it the same for cities, if a character visits a city, can she use the name of real streets and neighborhoods? I imagine authors of historical fiction wonder about this.
    –Your article mentions that a book title is not protected. But what if a character talks about a real book to another character, is that okay? In my novel, someone recommends a real non-fiction book to my character for research. If the character mentions what the book is about, is that okay, or do I need to just stick to the title of the book? The non-fiction book mentioned was published around the mid-1980s.

    Thank you so much! I love your website! Maybe all these questions are answered in your book :-). If so, I’m happy to purchase it.

    • Linda, You may use the real names of places, events, people, and companies, with some common sense limitations.
      You should be careful about making up a potentially damaging story about a recognizable person, product or company if people might reasonably think the story is true. I wrote more about this in my post, How To Use Real People in Your Writing (http://helensedwick.com/how-to-use-real-people-in-your-writing/ ).
      You may also mention titles of books and may summarize their contents. What gets people in trouble is copying large sections of the actual words of books or other work.

  4. Antara says:

    HI Helen,
    I listened to AC Fuller’s podcast with you — a great episode and I read your PDF copy of Obtaining of Lyrics Permission (thank you very much for this short booklet). I have a quick follow-up.
    I intend to use the following subtitle for my upcoming book Alice in Sinland: A Story of Murder, Greed, Corruption, Exploitation, Violence, Adultery and Treasure. Read it!
    Now, this is almost taken from the opening lines of Chicago’s musical: Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about the hear a story of murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, violence, adultery and treachery. Hit it!
    I’ve changed “treachery” with “treasure” and “hit it” with “read it”
    I’ve asked about this usage and everyone said that book titles are not copyrighted and moreover i made some changes and most people won’t connect the lengthy subtitle to Chicago musical, I bet. Still, I’d like to ask about it.
    the other thing is using a few single lines from a few songs like New York State of Mind and West Side Story’s Something’s Coming. I know you advised to contact the copyright holders and ask them about permission to use a single line like” I am in a New York State of Mind” or “Don’t be shy, meet a guy” but I have a few worries. First, these are very popular songs and the owner may ask to pay him hundreds or thousands of dollars (which I don\t have) for few words; and the second is that I’m not even a US citizen. I live in Bulgaria, East Europe. However, I intend to publish wide – through KDP, Create Space, Nook, Apple iBooks etc. Since i use print-on demand, there’s no way how I’ll know how many people, if any, order paperbacks. I intend to order myself 5 paperbacks to gift them to my advance readers but writing only 5 copies in the letter sample for asking permission will sound mocking, at the least.
    And lastly, can I use a humorous quote from 3D rock, said by Liz Lemon and a quote from Alice through the Mirror Glass? I think with Lewis Carol, being a very popular quote, I’ll be safe.

    Thanks once again and best wishes,
    Antara

  5. Matthew David Lennartz says:

    Hello,

    Thank you so much for providing this information. As a first time author, I find it to be a key component of my writing process to protect it passionately. My question is simple yet to this point through research has been elusive: When should I copyright? During my first draft or after the manuscript is completed?

    With much appreciation,

    M. D. Lennartz

    • Matthew, one of the purposes of registering a copyright is to create a record of what a work looked like on a particular date. So you could register your draft before it is finished or published. But very few writers do. They wait until publication.
      If you are concerned about pirating, then avoid posting your unfinished work on WattPad, your website or on critique sites.

  6. Matthew David Lennartz says:

    Helen,

    I appreciate your response. To date, though the novel is over half complete, I have only released the first paragraph for review. I designed as a foreshadowing of events in the last chapter; therefore, no harm was done.

    Yet another comment: Becoming an author is a field that strays far from my original life in technology. All be it, this was the best decision I have ever made. I love waking up and researching, outlining, character biographies, writing: everything. Perhaps the first novel is the “honeymoon” phase? Regardless, it is my firm belief that I am in God’s will.

    Yours in the written word,

    M. D. Lennartz
    Author, Writer

    “Let written word empower your legacy”

  7. Lee Edwards says:

    Okay, call me paranoid, but ….

    I’me at about 103k wds with maybe 20k more to go. I’m looking to beta swap my story, before searching for a publisher. Should I register the copyright before I beta swap?

    • Lee, You don’t need to. You own the copyright in the work whether or not you register it. But if you would sleep better at night, then register the manuscript as an unpublished work. It does not require a lot of time or money to register the manuscript, and sleeping better is a good thing.

  8. Al says:

    Hello there. So I haven’t been able to find an answer to this: if you register a manuscript as being unpublished, and then publish it, specifically as an ebook, does that necessitate the need to re-register the work? Does that somehow change the status of your registration or affect its standing?

    • My understanding is you re-register the work. To file a supplementary registration is actually a lot more expensive. If you go to the US Copyright office site and download Circular 8, you’ll find more info.

  9. Gary Graff says:

    Thank you for your expertise but I do have a question. If a book is published and copyrighted in one format (as, for instance, as a digital download) and then, later, published also as a paperback, should the later also be copyrighted?

  10. Shannon says:

    Do you know if journal and writing prompts are copyrighted? I have a book where the author mentions he couldn’t credit where he got all the journal prompts used in the book because he no longer remembers. That’s probably fine because they are likely not word for word, but what if you copy down prompts at a conference or something and no longer know who shared them? Or you’ve been using a prompt for years that you got from a book and now want to share it with others, but don’t know the name of the book. I ask because I’m writing a book on journaling and want to include various prompts. I’m uncertain how this works. I have your book, but it doesn’t cover questions such as this.

    • Shannon, Good question. If someone wrote an original prompt, then how the person wrote that prompt could be protected by copyright. But not the general idea behind the prompt. So it you rewrote the prompt you should be fine.

  11. Lyret Kalt says:

    Hi, so I’m in the middle of my first draft. I’m a bit paranoid about viruses and stuff, and I also use my computer I write on to play games. I recently downloaded some mods, or third party programs for one of my games, made by the community. It’s incredibly unlikely for it to possibly be malacious, but considering the effort I’m putting into my work I’m paranoid. I’m wondering if my worrying is unfounded and irrational at this point, or if I should get it officially copyrighted. Or is it not reasonable to do it with an unfinished first draft? How many protections do I have in the extremely unlikely event that my work is stolen, based off of basic copyright for written works, like you mentioned early in the post.
    Thanks, Lyret

    • Lyret, There are millions of manuscripts on hundreds of thousands of computers out there in various stages of completion. The chances that your unfinished manuscript will be stolen are very small. And content thieves tend to steal best sellers because they don’t want to go through the work of finishing a manuscript and selling it to the public. I would not lose sleep over this.

  12. Christine Damen says:

    I have a collection of stories and I wonder if I should register before I eliminate the ones that aren’t the greatest or after. What if I want to add them back? What does it mean if I publish the pared down version? Also, I think it’s different to register a collection, like more money? Haven’t gone in there to see how hard it is to figure things out. Is it easy to find the collections section? Guess I should have a look around. Thanks for any answers you can give me.

  13. Christine Damen says:

    If my story collection is about the same two characters having a conversation and it’s almost like chapters but without the numbers, just the name, can it be registered as one work?

  14. Christine Damen says:

    Thank you!

  15. Twining Court says:

    If two people started writing a book together about 10,000 words and one person decides they don’t want to continue it, if the other one finishes the entire novel, who would own the copyright? Registered or not?

    • Good question. Both would own the copyright in the first 10,000 words as they were written when the other person withdrew from the project. The writer who completed the work would own the copyright to the rest. A bit of a mess.

  16. What happens if your indie publisher (with a sole owner) dies and no one is designated to handle the operation or dissolution of the publishing house. If breach of contract happens because of nonpayment of royalties and no one at this indie publishing house answers emails, phone, and website shuts down, is copyright automatically reverted to the authors because this LLC has stopped operating? I ask this not as hypothetical but as actually happening. Please advise if authors can reclaim their copyright under these circumstances. Thanks!

    • Paula, Unfortunately this happens all too often. Technically, the heirs of the owner of the publishing company inherited the book rights of the company. If they are not interested in continuing the company, then these rights are in limbo. You could contact the heirs and ask them for a release so you can re-publish the book. Another publishing company will want to see a release. If you are self-publishing, you could take the chance that no one will ever asset a claim, but it’s still better to get a release.

  17. One thing to add, there are no assets and only debt reportedly at this publishing house.

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