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., to publish and distribute for profit) 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 (i.e., no one else can use them at the same time) or nonexclusively (i.e., 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 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, 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 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, do you need to register, and if so, when?
For unpublished book-length manuscripts being submitted to agencies and publishers, registration is not necessary. Contrary to what many authors believe, registering copyright provides no additional protection beyond what you already have by law. Registration does given you additional legal rights, which are important if your work is infringed–but you don’t need to worry about infringement at the submission stage. Theft of unpublished work is vanishingly rare.
I’ll repeat that, with emphasis: Your unpublished manuscript will not be stolen.
Theft is a huge concern for 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 agency or publisher that 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. 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 won’t steal your work either, because 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. Not until your book is exposed to a wide audience–i.e., published–do you need to worry about intellectual property theft.
Another reason not to register unpublished manuscripts: it may make you a target for solicitation. Some vanity publishers and questionable literary agents contact writers who register copyright for their books.
For published book-length manuscripts, registration is essential. Trade 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 magazines, journals, and online venues, 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, 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, if they publish in a country where an official registration process exists. 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, although the range of damages you can claim is limited.
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 or work, 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, 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.
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, 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’re either ignorant or paranoid. 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 many 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 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 official 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.
- The basics of moral rights, including the status of moral rights 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The importance of US copyright registration for self-published authors who publish in the USA.
- From Writer Beware’s blog: Why you don’t need to register copyright for unpublished manuscripts.
- Understanding Rights and Copyright, an article by Moira Allen discussing both copyright and use rights, and the difference between them. This is an older article, but it’s still a good summary.
- Alternative licensing: Creative Commons licenses.
- 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.
- 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.
Links checked/page updated 6/29/17
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