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10 Things Every Writer Should Know About Copyright

Monday, May 14, 2018

Your writing has value. You don’t know whether it’s worth $10 or $10,000,000, but your work deserves protection just like your car or home. While the legal aspects of writing can be intimidating, a basic understanding of what you own (and don’t own) is key to protecting your rights. So here are the basics.

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1. I’ve Written a Messy First Draft. Is It Protected by Copyright?

Indeed it is. As soon as you put your writing into a fixed form, whether on a pad of paper, a hard drive, a smartphone, or a recording device, you own the copyright to that work. Your first draft, riddled with typos, inconsistencies, and clichés, is protected by copyright law. Years ago, copyright law required writers to publish, register, and mark their work with a ©. That is no longer the case; copyright protection attaches automatically.

2. What Does Copyright Ownership Mean? 

It means you have the exclusive right to do, and authorize others to do the following:

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



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3. How Long Will My Copyright Last?

Your lifetime plus 70 years. If you create a work today and live another 40 years, the copyright will last 110 years!

4. What’s Protected by Copyright Law?

Literary and dramatic works, lyrics, musical notations, graphic and sculptural works, sound recordings, and architectural works, among others.

What about characters? Yes, if the character is fully developed and not a stereotype.

5. What’s NOT Protected by Copyright Law?

  • Book and song titles, names, and short phrases. Sorry, but your book title is not copyrightable.
  • Real-world events. The estate of John Steinbeck does not own exclusive rights to write about the Dust Bowl. Anyone else may write about those years.
  • Ideas, themes, and plot lines. This drives writers crazy. They are sure their ideas are worth millions. What copyright protects is the execution and expression of the idea into a story, drama, movie, painting, or piece of music—not the idea itself.
  • Stock characters, such as the tough-talking gangster or handsome-but-dull hero. They are not considered original. Same with generic settings such as deep space or undersea worlds.

6. Should I Mark My Work with ©?

Legally, you are no longer required to mark your work. But it’s a good idea. If your work is properly marked, then an unauthorized user may not claim that he or she was “innocent,” and you may be able to recover a larger award in an infringement action.

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 the copyright owner, which may be a pen name or the name of an entity such as a corporation. If there is more than one copyright owner, name all of them.

Add “All Rights Reserved” because the phrase is required in some foreign countries.

7. Are Copyrights Transferable?

Oh yes. They are sliced and diced into various pieces.

You may “assign” the entire interest in the copyright, but that is very rarely done. Instead, most writers grant licenses.

Licenses come in many flavors. They can be exclusive (meaning only the licensee has permission to use the work) or non-exclusive (meaning more than one person may use the work at the same time). Licenses may be limited to a particular use (editorial, noncommercial, educational), format (print, ebook, web), duration, geography, or almost anything. 

You will grant licenses to others whether you are pursuing the self-publishing or traditional publishing route. For instance, when you sign on with IngramSpark, you are granting them a non-exclusive license to print and distribute your book for you. That’s the perfect structure – you obtain the services you need (printing and distribution) without giving up your rights.

8. Should I Register My Work with the U.S. Copyright Office?

I recommend it. Registration establishes a public, searchable record of your work 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. Online registration is no more than $65, so there is no excuse for delay. You then mail in two copies of your work.

9. Is My Copyright International?

Although there is no such thing as international copyright, many countries have signed treaties that provide reciprocal recognition of copyrights.

10. What Do I Do if Someone Steals My Work?

Sooner or later, you will have the dreadful experience of finding websites offering free downloads of your books or blog scrapers reposting your material without permission or attribution. Some thieves steal entire books or create knock-offs with confusingly similar titles. Amazon has an ongoing problem with ebooks with titles like Thirty-Five Shades of Grey and I Am the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These fakes sold thousands of copies before they were removed from Amazon’s site.

To get unauthorized online uses removed, you can send “take-down notices,” a topic widely covered on the Internet. Sadly, however, chasing these low-lives could easily become a game of whack-a-mole. As soon as your work is removed from one site, it pops up on several others.

While it’s upsetting to see your work stolen, the theft may have little economic consequence for you. Your energy may be better spent creating new work and finding new readers.


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Helen Sedwick

Author and University of Chicago Law School graduate, Helen Sedwick has represented small businesses and entrepreneurs for 30 years. Her self-published historical novel Coyote Winds has earned five-star reviews from ForeWord Reviews and is an IndieBRAG Medallion Honoree. Publisher’s Weekly lists her Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook as one of the top five resource books for independent authors. Helen’s blog coaches writers on everything from saving on taxes to avoiding scams.