It occurred to me, as a lawyer-slash-writer, that it might be useful to have a post on copyright. As many of my loyal readers are also writers, I thought I would devote this week’s post to sharing some useful tips and information about intellectual property law with you.
Many writers are concerned about protecting their work, but many don’t know how copyright operates or what the author has to do to protect their work. To make matters worse, the concept of trademark is frequently confused with copyright. I will begin with a discussion of copyright, because it is the single most important concept for writers to be familiar with.
What is Copyright?
Copyright is protection under federal law that is extended to “works of authorship.” Insofar as the written word, a “work of authorship” includes poems, short stories, novels, newspaper articles, magazine articles, blog posts and more. For the sake of brevity, I will not delve into a philosophical discussion on how short or “bare bones” a piece can be and still be a “work of authorship.” Suffice it to say that most things you are creating (from short stories to novels) are works of authorship.
How do I protect my work with Copyright?
Put simply? Write it down. There is no “registration” required to obtain copyright protection for your work. Indeed, other than “fixing your work in a tangible medium,” the author needs to do nothing else to protect their work. Is Scrivener or Word a tangible medium, you ask? Yes. Typing your work into a word processor or writing it down on paper are both surefire ways to make sure your work is fixed in a tangible medium. Again, for the sake of brevity, I will not engage in any philosophical discussions of whether your lipstick poem on a bar mirror is “fixed in a tangible medium.”
When does Copyright begin?
It is automatic. From the moment your “work of authorship” is “fixed in a tangible medium,” i.e., you write your lovely poem down on paper, the copyright is created.
Who owns the Copyright to my work?
You do. The copyright will last for your entire lifetime and long after you are dead (70 years, presently, and even longer if Disney has their way). The rights will remain with you, or your heirs, until they expire, or until you assign your rights to another by contract.
Isn’t this kind of hard to prove? What does registration do?
This is a question that pertains more to what happens if someone uses your work without permission than to the creation of the copyright. If someone were to plagiarize your work, you would indeed have to prove you were the first to fix the words in a tangible medium. A discussion of the ways in which this might be shown would require much more space than a single blog post. In order to avoid this evidentiary dilemma, however, you may register your work with the U.S.Copyright Office for a small fee. Moreover, registration allows you to recover additional damages (i.e., money) from individuals who infringe upon your copyright. Upon (or before) disseminating your work to the public, it is a good idea to register it. Most publishers will do this for you, but if you’ve used a small press that hasn’t, or you’ve epublished, you should consider registering your works online at http://www.copyright.gov. At the time of the writing of this post, an online registration of a basic claim costs $35.00.
So what is Trademark, then? Do I need a trademark too?
Trademark is federal protection that extends to words, names, symbols or slogans used commercially to identify and distinguish goods or services. For most writers who are unpublished, or who are published and not “branded” (i.e., you have a wide readership and people want to buy t-shirts with your character’s names on them), the answer is no. Trademark has its place, but it is not to protect entire works of authorship, like poems or novels, but to protect words and phrases on the business end of things. For the most part, unless you reach rock-star levels of fandom, trademark is not something you’ll need to give much thought to.
The “Idea” Myth.
No copyright post would be complete without a section devoted to debunking the common myth that you can sue someone for stealing your ideas. “But I thought of writing a book about a boy who goes to wizarding school first!!” you say. Ahem..sorry, but this won’t fly. Copyright applies to the way you’ve put the words on paper, and to the story you’ve told, as you’ve pieced it together. It does not cover the ideas or concepts behind it.
I hope this has been a helpful post! Any thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments. :)
Note: This blog post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for legal counsel. If you are unsure about whether you need to register a copyright or trademark for your work, you should seek the opinion of an intellectual property attorney who can discuss the details of your particular situation and give you personalized legal counsel.
UPDATE: I thought an update was necessary to explain a querying faux pas. When querying agents, never tell them your work is copyrighted. They know that, because copyright is automatic, and it’s offensive, because it suggests you don’t trust them. Agents do NOT want to steal your work, they want to find a manuscript they love. Likewise, if you have decided to register your work, that is also information that does not belong in a query letter.
On another unrelated note, Janet Reid pointed out a concern this week that writers might be being scammed by individuals or businesses claiming to register copyrights and providing false registration numbers. If you decide to register any of your works of authorship, please do so with the U.S. Copyright Office directly, via the government website I listed above, or go through a licensed attorney.