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.
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.
- © or Copyright .
- 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.
- 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 SHARE THIS