Links checked/Page updated: 1/22/13
According to the Berne Convention (the international source for copyright law), an original expression is protected by copyright as soon as it is fixed in tangible form. In other words, the moment the words leave your brain and land on paper or the computer screen, you’re protected. No further action–such as registration–is required.
The term of copyright guaranteed by Berne is the lifetime of the creator plus 50 years. However, specific copyright laws vary among the more than 90 countries that are signatory to Berne, and in many countries the term is longer. In the USA and much of Europe, for instance, it’s the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years.
Also in the USA, copyright applies to economic rights only, and the moral rights provisions enacted in other nations–which are intended to help protect the personality and reputation of the author–don’t exist.
Berne ensures copyright protection without requiring authors to take any additional steps, such as registering their copyrights. As a result, many countries have no formal copyright registration process. In those that do, registration is voluntary, and is generally intended to provide prima facie evidence of authorship.
The United States is a major exception. As in all Berne signatory countries, registration is voluntary (you don’t need to register in order to have protection)–but to sue in court if your work is infringed, you must previously have registered your copyright with the US Copyright Office. (You can sue for actual damages [the monetary loss caused by the infringement], the infringer’s additional profits on the use of your work, statutory damages [up to a limit of $150,000], and attorneys’ fees.)
If you live in a country that offers an official registration process (as distinct from the many faux registration services–see below) do you need to register? If you’re submitting book-length work to literary agents or publishers, the answer is no. Registering your copyright gives you certain legal and/or evidentiary rights, but contrary to what many authors believe, it provides no additional copyright protection. So you really don’t need it. Plus, infringement isn’t something you need to worry about at the submission stage anyway. Theft of unpublished work is so rare as to be functionally nonexistent.
I’ll repeat that, with emphasis: Your work will not be stolen.
Theft is a huge concern among new writers. Among the most frequent questions Writer Beware receives is how to guard against theft, and we get many, many anxious letters from writers who fear the agent who just asked for their manuscript is planning to steal it and sell it under someone else’s name.
Trust me–this isn’t going to happen. If your book is wonderful, an agent or editor is going to want to make money by getting it published, and it’s a whole lot more trouble to steal your manuscript and pretend someone else wrote it than just to work with you. If your book is terrible, an agent or editor isn’t going to want it at all. A good agency or publisher will not risk its reputation by stealing; a bad agency or publisher won’t steal because it has no interest in your writing, only in the fees it can extract from you. Not until your writing is exposed to a wide audience–i.e., published–do you need to worry about infringement or registration.
For short fiction writers and journalists, the considerations are different, in part because some legal precedent suggest that publishers’ collective copyrights (which protect compilations of writings, such as magazines or newspapers) may not protect individual articles or stories. Both the National Writers Union and the Authors Guild recommend that writers register their published articles and stories, if they publish in a country where an official registration process exists.
However, there’s no need to register before you sell a piece. If you register within three months of first publication and prior to infringement, you’re entitled to sue for the full range of damages noted above. If you register later, you may sue only for actual damages plus the infringer’s profits–but you can do so even if registration postdates the infringement.
Another reason not to register unpublished work: it may make you a target for solicitation. Many vanity publishers and questionable literary agents contact writers who register copyright for their books.
In the USA, there are a number of online services that will register copyright for you with the US Copyright Office, for a fee. You can even purchase software that provides you with addresses and copyright forms. Don’t waste your money–it isn’t difficult to register copyright yourself, and it will cost you a good deal less than the services (currently, registration costs between $35 and $65, depending on whether you register online or on paper). For freelancers and others wanting to register more than one piece, the US Copyright Office offers a multiple-registration option.
Also in the USA, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) offers its own registration service. For various reasons, many agents and production companies prefer that unproduced screenplays be WGA-registered, but this isn’t useful for book manuscripts, since WGA registration is not a legal substitute for official US copyright registration. If a literary agent recommends that you register your book manuscript with the WGA, be wary: this agent doesn’t know much about copyright (something with which a good agent should be familiar).
In countries that don’t have an official registration process, such as the UK, there are many services that offer a sort of faux registration–really just a time-stamping or date verification service, supposedly designed to prove ownership of a work. But you can easily prove ownership yourself, by keeping draft copies, computer records, and the like; there’s no reason to pay someone else to do it. Such services, which provide neither legal advantage nor additional protection, are a waste of cash.
Like any complex and arcane subject, copyright has spawned a number of persistent myths.
Myth #1: You don’t have copyright protection unless a copyright notice or the copyright symbol (the little “c” in a circle) is present. Until 1989, works had to contain a valid copyright notice to receive protection under copyright laws. But this requirement no longer exists in Berne-signatory countries.You’re automatically protected by copyright from the moment you write down the words, and no further action on your part is required. Nowadays, if you’re submitting to agents and/or publishers within a Berne country, there’s no need to place a notice or a symbol on your work.
Myth #2: Even if you don’t need the copyright symbol or notice, it’s a good idea to include it. Nope. First of all, agents and editors know about copyright, so there’s no need to remind them you’re protected. Second, a copyright notice or symbol confers no additional protection, so it makes no difference whether it’s there or not. Third, agents and editors assume that a writer with professional aspirations is aware of these things. Including a notice may suggest to them that you’re either ignorant or paranoid. This is not exactly putting your best foot forward.
Unfortunately, this is an issue that generates a good deal of argument. For reasons I don’t quite understand, many writers are resistant to the notion that they don’t need to plaster their work with copyright notices. Adding to the confusion are the many how-to-get-published books that recommend the practice. All I can say is that every writer, book or magazine editor, or agent I’ve ever spoken with agrees that a copyright notice tends to produce an unfavorable impression (see, for instance, this blog post from literary agent Mary Kole). Since you don’t need the notice–again, it provides no additional protection–why take the risk?
One situation in which it may be advisable to include a copyright notice is for work displayed online. This isn’t because the notice gives you extra protection (it doesn’t), but because it may provide some deterrent to the many people who believe that the Internet is a copyright-free zone.
Myth #3: In the USA, you don’t have copyright protection unless you register with the U.S. Copyright Office. Wrong. Registration is a prerequisite for filing a copyright infringement suit, but it is not required for copyright protection. By law, you have that the moment your work is fixed in tangible form.
Myth #4: Registering copyright increases your protection. This isn’t true either. In a country that offers official registration, registering expands your rights, but does not confer additional copyright protection.
Myth #5: Material on the Internet isn’t protected by copyright. This is an amazingly common assumption, but it’s incorrect. Copyright is as protected on the Internet as anywhere else. Never use material from someone else’s website without first asking permission.
Myth #6: “Poor man’s copyright” is an acceptable alternative to U.S. copyright registration. Writers are often told that “poor man’s copyright”–sealing a copy of their work in an envelope, mailing it to themselves, and retaining the envelope unopened–is a reasonable alternative to official copyright registration, since it proves both ownership and the date of creation.
However, while that sealed envelope might possibly be useful in a court case (though more likely not, since poor man’s copyright is easy to fake: you could have mailed the envelope empty, and filled and sealed it later), it does not provide legal protection in countries where official registration is a prerequisite for filing an infringement suit. There is no substitute for official copyright registration. Don’t waste your time on poor man’s copyright.
Myth #7: Registering with the Writers Guild of America is an acceptable alternative to U.S. copyright registration. See above. WGA registration is not a legal substitute for official US copyright registration.
- Text of the Berne Convention, the international source for copyright law.
- The U.S. Copyright Office Homepage. You can get instructions on registering copyrights here, and download registration forms.
- The Canadian Intellectual Property Office. Canada also allows copyright registration. You can download registration forms here as well.
- The UK Intellectual Property Office. Note that in the UK, as in many countries, there’s no official copyright registration process.
- A useful chart of the duration of copyright in various countries.
- Figuring out whether a work is still under copyright in the USA: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.
- This Public Domain Calculator makes it easier to figure out when copyright will expire in Europe.
- The Publishing Law Center has a plethora of useful articles on all kinds of publishing subjects, including copyright.
- Ditto for the Intellectual Property Law Server.
- Copyright Basics, a circular from the Copyright Office of the US Library of Congress, covers copyright law in the USA.
- KeepYourCopyright.org is a resource for USA-based creators from Columbia University. Includes some useful examples of bad publishing contract terms.
- IPKat is a blog covering copyright and other intellectual property issues from a UK and European perspective.
- The British Copyright Council is “a national consultative and advisory body representing organisations of copyright owners and performers and others interested in copyright in the UK.” Its website includes a number of interesting articles.
- Copyright Registration: Why and How to Register Your Articles, from the American Society of Journalists and Authors, provides information on registration from a USA-based freelancer’s perspective.
- Understanding Rights and Copyright, an article by Moira Allen discussing both copyright and use rights.
- Alternative licensing: Creative Commons licenses.
- Will Editors Steal Your Ideas? An article by Moira Allen on why writers don’t have to fear theft of unpublished work.
- This blog post from agent Mary Kole explains why you don’t have to fear that agents will steal your ideas, and why placing the copyright symbol on your manuscript produces a bad impression.
- An overview of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which extends copyright protection to the Internet.
- Infringement does happen sometimes, especially online. The DMCA offers a remedy: the DMCA takedown notice. DMCA Takedown 101, an article by Jonathan Bailey, provides instructions on how to compose and send a takedown notice.
- A thorough debunking of poor man’s copyright, from Jonathan Bailey’s Plagiarism Today blog.