Page updated/links checked 12/20/23
Copyright, literally, is “the right to copy.” It guarantees the authors of creative works–including books, stories, artworks, films, recordings, and photographs–the exclusive right for a set period of time to copy and distribute the work, or allow others to do so, by whatever means and in whatever media currently exist. It also prohibits copying and distributing without the author’s permission.
In countries that are signatory to the Berne Convention (the USA, the UK, Europe, and many other countries), the creator owns copyright by law, automatically, as soon his/her work is fixed in tangible form. The minute you write down the words, you’re protected by copyright. No further action on your part (such as copyright registration) is required.
Contained within copyright is the entire bundle of rights that an author can grant to others or utilize him/herself. For book authors, this includes the right to publish in print and electronic formats, to make translations and audio recordings and films, to create serializations or abridgements or derivative works…the list goes on, and continues to expand as technology makes different forms of publication and distribution possible.
When you sign a publishing contract, you grant the publisher permission to exploit (i.e., publish and distribute for profit, with payment to you) some or all of your rights for a defined period of time. Because you own the copyright, granting rights doesn’t mean you lose or abandon those rights–merely that you authorize someone else to use them for a while, either exclusively (no one else can use them at the same time) or nonexclusively (you can also grant them to others). Once the contract term expires, the publisher’s claim on your rights expires also.
Per the Berne convention, copyright extends for 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, the UK, and much of Europe, for instance, it’s the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years.
Copyright includes economic rights, which allow authors to make money from their work, and moral rights, which include the right to claim authorship of a work, no matter how the work is used (right of attribution), and the right to protect the work from changes or additions that would be “prejudicial” to it or the author (right of integrity).
Moral rights are recognized in many countries around the world, and authors maintain them even after they grant all their economic rights to publishers or others. In the United States, however, moral rights apply only to works of visual art. They are not recognized for literary works. That doesn’t mean you can’t assert them–but if you do, US courts won’t pay much attention.
Publishing contracts sometimes have language requiring authors to assign, waive, or agree not to assert their moral rights. In the US, this doesn’t have much impact, but it can be important when licensing rights in other countries, and it’s something to watch out for.
The Berne convention guarantees 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 only to provide prima facie evidence of authorship.
The United States is an exception. As in all Berne signatory countries, registration is voluntary (you don’t need to register in order to have protection), but in order 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’re a US-based writer, or a non-US writer whose published work will be available in the US, do you need to register with the US Copyright Office, and if so, when?
For unpublished book-length manuscripts at the critique, editing, and/or beta reading stage, registration is not necessary. Theft is a huge concern for new writers. Among the most frequent questions Writer Beware receives is how to guard against theft, and whether copyright should be registered prior to publication.
But theft of unpublished work truly is vanishingly rare. Not until your book is exposed to a wide audience–i.e., published–does intellectual property theft become a concern. Also, contrary to what many authors believe, registering copyright provides no protection beyond what you already have by law. Registration does give you additional legal rights, which are important if your work is infringed–but again, you don’t need to worry about infringement at the pre-publication stage.
If you’re really concerned, there are reasonable steps you can take that don’t involve registration, such informal letters of agreement with beta readers and critique partners, and making sure that contracts with editors and designers make clear that there’s no transfer of rights. This article from an intellectual property attorney offers helpful suggestions.
For unpublished book-length manuscripts on submission to agents and publishers, registration is also not necessary. Writer Beware gets many, many anxious emails from writers who fear that the agent or publisher that just asked for their manuscript is planning to steal their idea and give it to someone else, or steal the manuscript itself and publish it under someone else’s name.
First of all, ideas aren’t protected by copyright law–only their expression. Give six writers one idea, and they’ll come up with six different books.
Second, as noted above, theft of unpublished work is not common. This is as true at the publisher-and-agent submission stage as it is at the critique-and editing stage. A good agency or publisher will not risk its reputation by stealing (it’s a whole lot more trouble, in any case, to rip off your manuscript and pretend someone else wrote it than it is just to work with you). As for a bad agency or publisher, it has no interest in your writing, only in the fees it can extract from you. If you won’t pay, it won’t give your manuscript another thought.
A couple of other reasons not to register copyright for unpublished manuscripts: it could create an issue later on for for a publisher that decides to publish your work, as literary agent Janet Reid explains. It may also make you a target for solicitation. Some vanity publishers and questionable literary agents contact writers who register copyright for their books. An example: vanity publisher Dorrance Publishing often solicits from copyright registration lists.
For published books that will be sold in the United States, registration is essential. Publication is the point at which infringement and intellectual property theft become a concern. Larger publishers typically register copyright in the author’s name at their own expense. Small presses often don’t want to incur the cost, and may leave registration up to you. If you’re self-published, registration will also be up to you (some self-publishing platforms offer copyright registration as an add-on service, but they’ll charge you more than you’d pay if you registered yourself).
For unpublished short stories and articles being submitted to US magazines, journals, and online venues viewable in the US, registration is your choice. While still rare, theft or “borrowing” is more of an issue with short works. You may want to protect yourself.
For published short stories and articles that will be available in the US, registration is wise. There’s some legal precedent to suggest that publishers’ collective copyrights (which protect compilations of writings, such as anthologies, 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. You can register within three months of first publication and still be entitled to the full range of damages noted above, as long as registration precedes infringement.
What if you don’t register, and discover that your published work has been stolen? As long as you register within five years of initial publication, you can still sue in court, although the range of damages you can claim is limited.
In the US, 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 $45 and $65 for electronic filing, and $125 for paper). For freelancers and others wanting to register more than one piece or work, the US Copyright Office offers a multiple-registration option.
Also in the US, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) offers its own registration service for scripts. 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, there are 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, research notes, emails, 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.
There’s a more detailed discussion of why such services aren’t helpful at Writer Beware’s blog. Some may even be scams, including this one that threatens to take possession of writers’ copyrights if they smell a rat and initiate a chargeback request to their credit card company.
Taking legal action if your copyright is infringed can be complicated and confusing–not to mention expensive. Suing an infringing party can rack up enormous legal fees, and take years to resolve. (The Authors Guild estimates that the average cost of a copyright suit in the USA is $400,000–often more than the value of the claim itself.) And there’s no guarantee of success. It’s a situation that, for many creators, renders their rights under copyright essentially unenforceable.
For US creators, however, there’s now an alternative: the Copyright Claims Board (CCB), which opened for business in 2022.
Established by Congress in 2020 via the CASE Act, the CCB is a small claims court for copyright disputes, where creators can bring lower-dollar infringement claims (monetary damages are capped at $30,000) without having to hire an attorney or make a court appearance (proceedings are conducted entirely online).
The CCB can hear three types of claims: copyright infringement claims, claims of misrepresentation in DMCA takedown notices, and claims seeking a declaration of non-infringement (if you’re falsely accused). You must file your claim within three years of the infringing activity (the time period stipulated by the US Copyright Act), and you must previously have registered your copyright in order to file (per its FAQ, the CCB doesn’t require registration to have been completed, but you must at least have submitted an application). At $100, the filing fee is modest.
There are a couple of catches. Decisions by the CCB are considered binding, and there are limited avenues for appeal if a decision goes against you. Also, participation is voluntary: if you file a claim, the respondent can opt out, in which case the claim is closed. Even so, having a less complicated, less expensive, and easily accessible alternative to costly court action is of obvious benefit to creators, especially in a world where technological advances are constantly expanding the frontiers of copyright infringement.
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 US copyright laws. But this requirement no longer exists. You’re automatically protected by copyright from the moment you write down the words, and no further action on your part is required.
Myth #2: Even if you don’t need the copyright symbol or notice, it’s a good idea to include it when submitting unpublished work. Nope. First of all, literary 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 or symbol may suggest that you haven’t taken the time to educate yourself. This is not exactly putting your best foot forward.
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 how-to-get-published books that recommend the practice. 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?
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 lawsuit, 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 your copyright increases your protection. This isn’t true either. In a country that offers official registration, registering may expand your rights, but does not confer additional 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 US 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 benefit in the USA, where official registration is a prerequisite for filing an infringement suit.
This article explains in more detail why you shouldn’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–though it’s not a prerequisite for pursuing infringement in court, as it is in the USA. 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.
- The Copyright Claims Board offers a low-cost, streamlined option for creators looking to bring suit for copyright infringement in the USA.
- A useful chart of the duration of copyright in various countries.
- The basics of moral rights, including the status of moral rights in various countries.
- Copyright Aware: A comprehensive resource on copyright for creators, from the BBC.
- Copyright Basics, a circular from the Copyright Office of the US Library of Congress, covers copyright law in the USA.
- The IPKat is a blog covering copyright and other intellectual property issues from a UK and European perspective.
- Alternative licensing: Creative Commons licenses.
- From Writer Beware’s blog: Rights vs Copyright: Untangling the Confusion, an article discussing copyright and use rights, and the difference between them.
- From attorney Helen Sedgewick, 11 Things Every Writer Should Know About Copyrights
- The importance of US copyright registration for self-published authors who publish in the USA. (Note: the registration fee is now $45.)
- For online infringement, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act offers a remedy: 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.
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