Approaching Copyright as a Writer

Copyright governs written works, and copyright law is the backbone of how writers can be paid for their writing. Before reading this post, bear in mind that the author (me) is not a lawyer, and this should absolutely not be considered legal advice.

One of the ways writers can earn money for their artistic expression, aka written stories, is through the sale of rights that are inherently part of owning copyright over a work. This is called exploiting copyright.

Copyright does not have to be registered, ever, for you to have it – it exists the moment there are words on paper or on a screen. Literally, it just needs to be a “fixed form”. Registering copyright gives you added benefits to seeking monetary recompense if someone ever infringes on your copyright (I.E. copying, distributing, and/or making money off of your copyrighted material without your license or permission). Even without registration, though, you can sue for infringement – there’s just a cap on how much money you can be awarded in court if you win.

Also important, on the topic of registering copyright:

The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U.S. law, although it is often beneficial. This requirement was eliminated when the United States adhered to the Berne Convention, effective March 1, 1989. Should the copyright holder elect to utilize a copyright notice, he/she may do so freely without permission from or registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. In fact, the use of a copyright notice is recommended as it reminds the public that the work is protected by copyright.copyright.com

In the U.S. of A. copyright endures for the life of the author plus seventy years. Most common in other countries is the life of the author plus fifty years. During that time, copyright is always yours, or your estate’s. You can license other parties so they exploit copyright on your behalf. This post won’t be getting into how much money individual rights are worth, but it’s good to keep in mind that they are definitely worth something. It’s also important to know that there are many different sub-rights, and that license of copyright is actually just a grant of permission to copy, distribute, sell, etc., your copyrighted material.

For clarity, the rules of copyright apply to any work in it’s full, written form. This includes when you hit the ‘save’ button while working on a manuscript. (Full and complete does not mean narratively full and complete – just the literal full, complete collection of words that you have finished.)

Contracts are necessary for the license of copyright. Usually, they include stipulations such as how long the licensed party is allowed to exploit the copyright.

Titles and names are not covered by copyright. If you want to lay claim for the purposes of protecting that sort of thing, you need to look into trademarks, which are beyond the scope of this post.

Ideas are not protected by copyright, at least not without stretching. For instance, if I wrote a story about three young light wizards overcoming the evil machinations of a dark wizard, there isn’t much of a case to sue me for infringement regardless of what other stories use a similar set-up. It’s a work, as a whole, that is covered under copyright, not the details that make up the story. (Ethically, there is a grey area regarding this topic. If you’re a U.S. author, look up fair-use for added reading.)

The first step to protecting your copyrights is to have regular, and dated, fixed copies of your work. Save your work often, and have the date and timestamps on the file. If you are hand-writing, consider making physical copies and keeping the receipt with the date the copy was made.

The following are some of the top results when you ask Goole about copyright, although I’ll add in another disclaimer that none of this should be considered legal advice.

Copyright is a form of protection provided by laws of the United States [and other countries] to the authors of “original works of authorship” including: literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.
Copyright is a legal right created by the law of a country that grants the creator of an original work exclusive rights for its use and distribution. This is usually only for a laminated time. The exclusive rights are not absolute but limited by limitations and exceptions to copyright law, including fair use.
The phrase “All rights reserved” is often used in conjunction with a copyright notice. Today it has no legal significance. In copyright law, by default all rights are reserved; nothing may be done with a copyrighted work without explicit permission.

Copyright is what you sell to a publisher. More accurately, it’s what you license them. Contracts can vary, and there’s a whole other blog post (if not two or ten) that I could write about what to look out for in a contract. If you are a writer and haven’t heard the phrase “rights grab” or haven’t researched what exactly it means, I’ll just say that it’s never too early to get informed. While you’re at it, keep your eyes open for cautionary tales about contracts with digital-first or digital-only publishers. Look up what a non-compete clause is wouldn’t be amiss, either. Once you sign your name to a contract, there’s no going back. Writers have to wear too many hats already, but the pseudo-lawyer one is arguably one you can’t afford not to put on.

What are your big questions about copyright? Have you ever seen a publishing contract, and if you have would you be able to identify which clauses pertain to rights reversion? Have you ever received a suspicious request to take down content from an unidentified person? If you could choose anything for copyright to protect, what would it be? Would you like to know more about the differences between trademarks and copyright? The comments are always open.

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