Writers Workshop:

COPYRIGHT BASICS
(Original Version: Writers.com Vol. 3, No. 7 July 2000;
This Version July 2002)

Sometimes new writers confuse publication rights and copyright. The right to publish what you have written is what you offer when you submit a story or article for sale. Your copyright -- your right to the distribution of your work --already exists and you are offering a publication the permission to publish it. If you would like to know more about the rights you are offering for sale, see Writers Workshop: Very Basic Right Basics

There's no reason for anyone to be misinformed or ignorant of the basics of copyright. The information is easily available on the Web and elsewhere. Still, I've run across a lot of folks who seem to be clueless, so maybe a few resources and basics are in order.

I'll be referring to US Copyright, but here are some sites that cover:

For more US information I recommend:

IMPORTANT: I am not a lawyer. This isn't legal advice. I highly recommend checking out the sites mentioned above for more detailed information.

Copyright is the law that protects people who create "original works of authorship". It gives the copyright owner the right to determine who can make copies of it the work and how many copies can be made. This right can be sold or licensed to someone else. It can be bought in advance for work someone has hired you to do, as in "work for hire."

Copyright exists as soon as the original work is created in a tangible form -- your ideas and thoughts aren't copyrighted, but as soon as you "fix" that idea on paper, on a disk, in email, in computer code, whatever -- it's copyrighted. In general, copyright established after 1978 lasts until 70 years after the author 's death. The work also has to be "creative" -- not just factual -- but just about anything you write, draw, record, sculpt, photograph or create architecturally IS considered creative. (Remember -- *tangible form*. If it's just something you say, it has to be recorded to be in a fixed form; choreography has to be annotated or recorded.)

This means that just about anything original you write and put down on paper, put in email, post anywhere on the Net or code is copyrighted. And even though factual data can't be copyrighted -- a "creative" compilation, organization or editing of those facts can be. No copyright notice is required. (Then why is there a copyright notice on these Web pages? Because a notice serves as a warning to people not to violate copyright.)

What can't be copyrighted? Things like titles, names, characters, slogans, blank forms, information that is common property like calendars, height and weight charts, rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources. Titles, slogans, etc. can, however be trademarked -- but that's something else entirely.

Realistically copyright has to do with protecting your right to profit from your creative labors. Obviously, you want to be the one to derive benefits from the making and distribution (or public performance or display) of copies of your work. Copyright infringement suits usually don't happen unless some serious money is involved. So, really, to be enforced, that copyright should have some commercial value to it. Regular email, for instance, usually has no commercial value, but an article written for this newsletter might. Posting email on Usenet or Web site without permission is a violation of copyright. Posting, as opposed to private email, anywhere on the Net definitely means it IS published -- and plenty of people can read it -- and by giving it away free you CAN damage that value. You can extract factual information, but that doesn't mean you can use the actual wording or its "creative compilation." In general, you should at least ask to reproduce something someone else has created before posting it elsewhere.

You don't have to go through any legal formalities to establish these rights. However, formal registration makes a public record of the basic facts of a particular copyright and adds additional protection. You can have evidence that it is yours, but registering it gives you statutory and more easily enforceable rights. Among other legal niceties, if you are going to file an infringement suit, this formal registration is necessary. Registration made within 3 months of publication or before infringement means you can receive statutory damages and attorney's fees in court actions. Otherwise you can get only actual damages and profits. Registration costs $30, and involves filling out a form and sending a copy of the work to the Library of Congress. The forms are available online. (Recently services have started up online to do this for you. If all they are doing is filing the forms, you need to determine if this convenience is worth the extra charge.)

For the most part, you don't have to worry about anyone stealing your work. Reputable editors don't steal stories. Sure, you occasionally hear of publishers or studios being sued for stealing a story or song. These usually occur when large amounts of money are involved. Most such suits are groundless and far more frequent in entertainment fields other than book or magazine publishing.

Yes, the Web has increased some violations of copyright. However, for most new writers, most such violations are quickly discovered and just as quickly ended. If you discover such infringement of your copyright, write a letter to the offending party requesting that the material be removed. If you receive a refusal or no action, inform the sites Internet Service Provider about the situation. The Science Fiction-Fantasy Writers of America Web site has an excellent article by an attorney on exactly what you should do if your work is pirated: Protecting Your Work from Electronic Pirates.

E-piracy -- the theft of electronic rights from writers and artists -- is a problem for well-published or professional authors. As SFWA sums it up, "E-theft occurs when a party, without authorization from the copyright owner, makes an electronic copy of a work, and causes it to be available to others. It does not matter if this is done by the transfer of files from person to person, or if the work is posted to the Internet. It is still theft." It will become a problem for you as you progress as a writer. Become aware now: SFWA E-Piracy Section. You can also learn about the legal case Harlan Ellison v. Stephen Robertson et al. and Ellison's KICK Internet Policy Campaign.

-- Paula Guran


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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.