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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105 responses to “11 Things Every Writer Should Know About Copyrights”

  1. Liz says:

    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 ?


    • 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 (https://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,

  5. Matthew David Lennartz says:


    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:


    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.

  18. Ken says:

    Great information here. I have six books published by the same publishing house, Black Rose Writing. I have now canceled my contract and obtained a release on all my books from them. I want to re-publish with Amazon. Do I need new copyrights for each book? How about new ISBN for each one.

    • Ken, You still own the copyright. But if you are asking if you need to re-register the copyright, you don’t. If the copyrights have already been registered, then you would want to update each registration showing yourself as the assignee and/or holder. If the copyrights have never been registered, then you may do that now. All of this can be accomplished online.
      You will need a new ISBN for each book.

  19. Christine Damen says:

    If I copyright a work and then add to it or revise it, is there a way to avoid a completely new copyright?

    • Christine, I assume you mean registering the copyright, since you own the copyright in the original version and all revisions. You may amend a registration to add new material.

  20. Christine, First to clarify, you own the copyright in your work in its original form and all its revisions as soon as you put them down on paper or a computer. By “copyright” I assume you mean registering the copyright with the US Copyright Office and whether you need to re-register the work every time your revise it. No, you don’t. Once you register the work, the registration will cover revisions until the point where it’s substantial, let’s say more than 40% new material. Then you may amend you registration to add the new material.

  21. Christine Damen says:


  22. Christine Damen says:


    You mentioned amending the registration…how does that work? Is it made clear on the .gov website?

  23. Christine Damen says:

    I keep hearing that when you apply for a CR that they want a “published date” What do I do if it isn’t published yet?

  24. Christine Damen says:

    Can I put illustrations in the document for CR?

  25. L. Jackson says:

    Hi Helen, I have ceased operations with my self-publishing company. I want to republish my novel with a different cover, use my name as the publisher and edit a few mistakes that were made in my original book. Does my original copyright cover all of this? What about the library of congress control number? Will I need a new one?

    • Your original copy still applies, although be sure to check the filing. If your prior publisher recorded its rights to the book, you want to get those assigned back to you. I would get a new LCCN. It’s free.

  26. L S says:

    Grammatical break down of every word of famous book specifically first chapters. Linguist break downs: She poked down the road with a skip. Example: Pronoun – Verb Past tense – adverb – preposition – noun – preposition – determiner – verb ; 3rd person present. Would this be copyright infringement? Creating ebooks for sale? As a writing exercise?

    • LS, When an author adds this much additional content and the purpose is education, this work is likely to fall within the definition of fair use and be permitted. No guarantees, but it hits the right buttons.

  27. Alejandra says:

    Hi! I’m creating a baby journal book that will be sold. All the material is made by me, however, if I write some quotes (and put the author alongside), is that legal?

  28. Hi Helen, Thanks for all your great advice and helpful hints. I wrote a book and secured a registration for the copyright on the book in 2013 before it was published on Amazon. The book also had my art included to be used on the cover. It was published in 2014. Because the book is about describing each of the 360 degrees zodiac, I decided to create new art and make a new cover for the second edition that has the exact same title. I also added a short analysis of a subject of interest. As I read your comment #20 on this blog I can see that I added much less than 40% of new material. So this does not really need to be re-registered for that reason unless I want to secure the art? I have a registration pending right now as I try to secure hard copies of the first published edition of the book to mail in.But maybe I don’t need to re-register after all. Since that time that I created the second edition, I have created several new editions so that I can showcase the art that describes a specific degree from the book and have a variety of unique book covers. In order to create identifiable book covers, I started with edition three to embellish the title with a specific degree and also added a subtitle to describe the painting on the cover. I have also created new text and eleven new subjects to showcase for the new editions.The new material for all twelve subjects is still less than 25% of new material added when they are all compiled into one edition. The original book is the main component of all the editions. My concern is whether I have should re-register every new addition. I already have twenty five editions. I’d like to do all three hundred and sixty eventually. Is the embellishment to the title a registration challenge? The books all have the same title, but only the first two editions are missing the embellishment. It seems to me that it’s all about the art at this point. I assume after reading your comments about the 40% of new material that my copyrighted original book content is protected no matter where I put it or what I add to it within that guideline. I love my project but lately have lost a lot of sleep worrying. I can’t imagine registering all of the editions when they all have much less than 40% of new material unless the title embellishments and art create the need. Thanks again for your wonderful advice! I actually was able to sleep last night!

  29. Walter says:


    I have written a political non-fiction book. I incorporated several pictures in the book and made modifications such as ‘cartoonizing,’ mirror imaging and replacing certain colors in the pictures in order to change them into my own works. Perhaps you are familiar with the image of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez at the Southern border by a fence with her face in her hand sobbing. Those are the types of publicly images that I started with. Do you think that I have done enough to avoid any claims of copyright infringement? Thanks and stay safe.

    • Walter, Sorry for the slow response. Unfortunately, I can’t give a yes-or-no answer to this type of question because whether a use is Fair Use depends on a number of factors. The more original expression you add the better. The safest route is to ask permission.

  30. Shubhendu says:

    Hi Helen,
    Very informative piece. Thanks for your generosity in sharing your expertise.

    I am reaching out for some guidance – I am writing a non-fiction that will have references from articles that have appeared in scientific journals, websites and news magazines (online editions).
    My question is, how do I go about it? I will, of course, give them due credit by referencing. However, do I need to approach them individually for permissions? (I will use my own images).

    I will appreciate any insights you have for me.


    • You do not need permission to reference or summarize another work, but if you are quoting a substantial portion, you should get permission. But first read up on “Fair Use.” From what you describe, your quotes could be considered fair use.

  31. Skye Marin says:

    Hi Helen,

    I was wondering if, upon completion of my book, that I could put a copyright notice in the beginning so that I can publish it while I wait for the actual copyright to come through or if that’s illegal?? I’m eager to get my stories out there and I understand why it would take them so long, but I still kinda don’t want to wait. I just want to get my book out there as fast as possible.

  32. I have completed a book, not yet published but copyrighted, based on actual events where these events involved many persons and not a single person. In my book, which is fiction and an amalgamation of these events that are assigned to one or more characters in my book, the storyline is such that the story just might appear to be true but in actuality is not, at least to the best of my knowledge. These events were taken from law enforcement files although the names of the people associated with these events are nowhere mentioned in the book. Even though some, not all, of the places mentioned are real, none of the events actually occurred in those places except for some of those in the Washington DC area. None of the events is completely accurate, although some are very close, as described in the book and are not quoted from the files researched. The events have been slightly altered to protect any real individuals involved. The title of the book is the name of the most primary character, Claire, and is not the name of any real person mentioned in any of the law enforcement files that were used. It seems that I am on solid ground for avoiding any problems with actual persons but am unsure and have not completely convinced myself that I am okay. Based upon what I have said, my questions are: have I possibly missed something, have I, in your opinion, avoided any legal pitfalls and if so, what might they be, and what should I do to ensure there are none?

    • Augustus, If your book is clearly fiction, and you have done all you have described, then your book sounds like low risk. But read my posts about using real people in your writing for more information.

  33. raymond martin says:

    I have a question: I have already copyrighted my using my wife’s and I as publishers, is there a way to change the name to something else without going through the copyright office again?

    • You may assign your copyright to yourself, another entity, or to anyone. You may update your copyright registration to show the new owner, but it is not required.

  34. Laurence says:

    Hello! I’m hoping to start an art project based on social theory that I was taught at university. I was hoping to make resources for people to apply social theories to themselves eg Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and a guided self assessment (I am a social worker- I’m thinking empowerment tools). Is it okay to describe the academic/scientific theory in a few short sentences on my website (eg my basic interpretation of how it could be useful to someone) and then either giveaway or hopefully sell a piece of art, guided worksheet and zine talking someone through applying it?

    I won’t be copying any original text other than the titles and it will all be my own writing/artwork.

    I will of course clearly credit the genius behind the original theory, point to the first hand original article (or current versions) and make it explicitly clear that the theory isn’t my work.

    I’m actually based in the UK so I understand it’s different in different jurisdictions, however some of the theorists are US based, so I imagine the rules will apply.

    I’d be very grateful for any advice, I’ve been reading fair use and I’m tying myself in knots!

    • Laurence, Sounds like you are doing it correctly — rephrasing the material in your own words and providing attribution. Regarding the art and other handouts, if you did create them yourself, you may need permission to use them.

  35. Linda says:

    My daughter is writing a novel and has already published two chapters digitally through an online source. She asked me to research copyrighting. The government site talks about unpublished works. What about that she already partially published? Also, would online publishing be literary works or other digital content?

    • Your daughter owns the copyright as soon as she put her writing into a tangible form. She has not lost her copyright by publishing chapters online. She may also register the work with the US copyright Office for added protection. But she already has a copyright interest. If she’s registers the work, it would be easier to register it as a published work since it is partially published.

  36. I sold my book to a publisher in 2014. It was reissued in 2015.I was paid an advance but as a novice writer I expected the publisher to promote the book. They didn’t. Now, in 2020,I asked the publisher to return the copyright to me. My intention is to change the cover, the title and subtitle and edit the content by adding content. Under these circumstances do I need the actual return of the copyright?

    • James, It depends on your contract with the publisher. Most likely, you still own the copyright and you granted the publisher a license to publish the book. In that case, you and the publisher would agree to terminate the license and deal with follow up issues such as whether they may sell out any inventory or they will sell their inventory to you at cost.

  37. Kayla Woodfield says:

    Hi Helen, I am a first time writer and I’ve found a few professional authors and editors that I’m soon having review my book and give advice. My book is finished, but it’s likely that I would use their advice to make changes. Should I have my book copyrighted before I allow others to view/edit it? I’m sure it is unlikely that the idea might be stolen but I’m wondering what the protocol is or what the best way to approach the situation is?

    • Kayla, You own the copyright already. So if someone stole your work before you registered the copyright, you would still have a claim for copyright infringement. However, before you could actually file a lawsuit you would have to register your copyright with the US copyright office. It makes no difference if you register the copyright now or later after any revisions are made. Your ownership of the copyright includes revisions and derivations of the work. If you would sleep better registering the work early, do it now.

  38. Kayla Woodfield says:

    Helen, as an additional question I am wondering how a copyright works on books if I were to use a free-lance illustrator. I understand that I would own the words, but as an ebook or paperback would I need to somehow include them or provide them some sort of rights or royalties?

    Thank you so much for the help!

    • Who owns the illustrations and how an illustrator is paid are both heavily negotiated items. You might want to pay the illustrator a flat fee and take an assignment of the copyright in the work. Or you might get only a license to use the work for your book and pay the illustrator a percentage of what you receive. There’s no one right answer.

  39. Mary Lou Becker says:

    Is it common for an agent or broker to ask for a copy of your Copyright Registration Certificate?

  40. Gail says:

    I contributed to and edited a joint work written for 7 years. I’m looking for copyright information regarding book publishing with “As Told To” title as the co-author is now deceased. Can you point me to any rules surrounding joint works in this situation?

  41. Cheyenne says:

    Helen: I just discovered your blog & the info is invaluable. – My historical fiction book is about a hotel that once thrived in the 30s & 40s. My story is totally made up but the hotel figures prominently & I sometimes refer to or create scenes using well known people, now deceased, of that era. After years of decline, it closed in the 60s & remained vacant for over a decade & was nearly demolished until the City stepped in. The property is now designated a historic landmark & was renovated. It is used for low-income housing only. Since the storyline is very positive & all the original hotel owners & staff are long since dead, do I need permission to use the hotel as a setting for my fiction? Thank you so much for any assistance & Happy Thanksgiving.

  42. Rebeca says:

    Hi Helen

    I am working on a book. The objective is to collect “other” people’s stories in their own words and publish them.

    I will make sure that they know the objective of their participation, and that, whatever they write will be part of my publication. I also will be donating fifty percent of the sales profit to the organizations that participate.

    I have two questions:

    1. How do I make sure that, once they submit their story, I will have the right to use it and I won’t be sued for publishing it?

    2. Am I obligated to do any type of legal procedure to establish that the fifty percent of the profit will go to them? or is it my word sufficient?

    Thank you

    • Rebeca, It would be safer to get a signed release from them. Email me through the website and I’ll send you a sample form.
      There is no need for a legal formality for the promise to make a donation. Your word is enough.

  43. Dave says:

    Helen: I’m looking to publish a work of fiction, where someone takes revenge for a real life murder. In real life the murderer has been in prison for many decades and is unlikely to ever be released, however in my book he is released, confronted and himself murdered. Is writing about a fictious post release life and him being murdered leaving me legally vulnerable? Also should my copy write statement say something along the lines of ‘Although some of the characters are real, the events depicted are fictitious?

    • What you are describing involves low or even no legal risk. But take a little time to read up on defamation and the right of publicity so you are familiar with the issues and parameters.

  44. So while I know this is an old blog post, the information is still important and valuable.

    My question is and I haven’t been able to find an answer for is why is the copyright information always put at the front of the book? Is that just for library purposes?


    In the famous literary works like harry porter or lord of the rings, are places like hogwards and mordor procted internationally? Like can someone in India use Mordor as a part of the name of their company?

    • The more well-known the name, the more likely it would be considered a trademark. It would legally risky to use a trademark or well-known name. However, I am not familiar with the laws of India, so you should consult with legal counsel in your jurisdiction.

  46. Molly Gall says:

    Hi! I don’t know if someone already asked, there were too many to look through at the moment. I was just wondering; There is this thing where you recommend a bunch of stories and post it for other people to be able to read the stories as well. It states the name, the description, the writer, and the opinion of the recommendation writer.

    I was wondering if a story with “all rights reserved” is allowed to be recommended without permission. Like, I really want more people to read this one story because it is incredible but I don’t know if I have to get permission or not before recommending it, even if I do add all of the information.

  47. Betty says:

    Hello Helen,
    I’ve been researching copyright law and was wondering if it’s possible to put down one person twice in the copyright forms – once with a real name and once with a pseudonym. I have a feeling it leads to some legal trouble but I’m not entirely certain, do you have info on that?

  48. Sandra Novacek says:

    Great information! My question is how does the writer/author of a self-published children’s picture book for which she hired an illustrator, complete the U.S. copyright application? If the illustrator has retained ownership of their illustrations is the illustrator named in the application as an “author?” Thank you!

    • The author would state that the copyright registration does not cover the illustrations. There is a way to do that as you work through the online form.
      The illustrator could then file his or her own copyright registration form.

  49. Karim Miteff says:

    Hi, Helen:

    Here is an odd question.

    I recently published a book with myself as the copyright holder, but I immediately transferred the copyright to an LLC after publication. I intend to register the transfer with the U.S. Copyright Office and then register the book under the LLC. It is a print-on-demand book, so slight alterations can be made and submitted. The current copyright page and statement show my name. Do I have to release a new Edition to note the change on the copyright page, or can I alter it to reflect the change in the current edition? I would hate to stop the sales momentum and the current ranking of the book…

  50. Irene says:

    My former publisher registered the copyright for three of my novels w/copyright office. The copyright shows me as the copyright holder and them as the publisher. It also has the ISBN of their versions of the books.

    Since my rights have been fully reverted to me, and I’ve put out my indie version (new cover, new ISBN, same manuscript with a few very slight corrections), should I re-register the copyrights with the copyright office, or is that unnecessary?

    A second question, if I may? Is there any reason a publisher would want to hold onto the original copyright certificate, or are they (generally) willing to release it to the copyright holder?

  51. Ina Simpson Snyder says:

    My fiance’ and I wrote and illustrated a children’s book. Unfortunately, he passed before we published it. I put it “on the shelf” for a few years. Now I want to publish it. How do I get a copyright since created it jointly?

    • Ina, You jointly own the copyright with your fiance’s heirs. As a joint owner, you have the right to publish it, but you are expected to share any profits from the book with the heirs. A better solution would be to see if the heirs will assign all rights to you.

  52. Paul Scribbans says:

    Hello Helen,

    This is a great article. I’ve been trying to decide if a story I’m writing (as a short novel) would infringe copyright. I don’t believe it will, but I’d greatly appreciate your insight and expertise.

    The story originated in England many years ago (pre 1800’s), and was first published in a book and newspaper article in the 1850’s. Now, I understand that any copyright from 1850 will have lapsed and the story would now be in the public domain, and therefore not subject to any copyright – so far so good.

    My confusion is that a publisher has published a book containing a authors version of the story, and there are a few websites which also carry a ‘retold’ version of the tale (some referencing the 1850 source). All these have copyright notices – as you’d expect – and have been published in the last ten years or so.
    If I published my version of the story (based on the 1850 version), could I be risking infringement, as there will undoubtedly be similarities between my narrative and the other modern versions? As I understand it, all stories written from a public domain source (such as this) will surely be similar, but as long as it’s not a direct copy, it’s not a copyright infringement. Would this be your interpretation also?

  53. Paul Scribbans says:

    Thank you so much, Helen. I was literally pulling my hair out trying to get a straight answer on the copyright around another writer’s retelling of a public domain story.
    In summary: Stick to the original public domain version of the narrative and avoid the other writer’s work (Introduction, commentary and illustration). Also, characters, names, settings in the public domain version can be retold.

  54. Jennifer Norris says:

    Dear Helen,

    Thanks for this very informative website!

    I have written and illustrated a children’s book based on my original song. A registered name, Snidely Whiplash, comes up once in the lyrics in reference to a twirly mustache. The accompanying illustration bears little resemblance to Snidely except he has a black top hat and twirly mustache. Is it ok that I use the registered name “Snidely Whiplash”?

    I appreciate your help!

  55. Rak says:


    1) What if 4 people are registered as authors for a song: Person A wrote music, person B wrote 75% of the lyrics, and person C wrote 25% of the lyrics. All 3 perform music on the sound recording (with person C being the only vocalist). Person D played music on recording but didn’t write any part of the song. Persons A & B are registered as copyright claimants. Do they need person C’s permission to publish the sound recording?

    2) What if it was almost the same situation as above, but person C only sung the lyrics that were recorded exclusively by person B. Do persons A & B need C’s permission to publish the audio recording?

    3) Another variation: what if person A wrote music, person C wrote all lyrics, and all 4 perform on sound recording. But only A is registered as copyright claimant. Does A need C’s permission to publish the recording?

  56. Maren Junk says:

    I am in the process of writing a short “How To” book. One chapter contains specific guidelines & instructions that I wrote, myself, & did not use any on line or external help of any kind. The info is based on my existing know!edge of the facts. As I progress along, should I copyright/register each chapter, or do I wait until the entire book is completed??
    Thank you very much for your assistance.

    • Maren, Wait until the book is completed to register your copyright. You own the copyright as soon as you write the content. Registration is an added layer of protection.

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