Many writers assume their biggest risk is getting sued for defamation. Not so. Every year hundreds of thousands of books are published, but they trigger only a handful of defamation suits. But tens of thousands of writers will have signed away their copyright without knowing it.
Over the next few posts, I will help writers understand what they own and how to share their work without losing their rights. Words are our stock-in-trade, our intellectual property. With a little understanding, writers will be better prepared to protect that property just like they protect their cars and their homes.
Every time you write something original, whether it’s a corny limerick or a best-selling novel, whether it’s on a slip of paper or a Smartphone, you have created a copyrighted work. Your first draft, riddled with typos, is protected even if you never polish and publish it.
Earlier law required copyrightable work to be published, registered and marked. Not anymore. Now copyright attaches automatically.
Original does not mean Nobel Prize-winning prose; it means you did not copy the material and you imparted some creative expression. For instance, you cannot copyright a phone book.
If you collaborate on a project, then all creators jointly own the copyright. Any one of them may use and publish the work without permission from the others, although profits must be shared. For that reason and others it’s important that collaborators capture their agreement in writing.
An owner of a U.S. copyright has the exclusive right to:
- Reproduce the work in books or other forms;
- Sell, distribute, and commercially exploit the work;
- Create derivative works, such as translations, adaptations, sequels, and abridgments; and
- Display or perform the work publicly.
If anyone violates these rights, you have an infringement claim. There are exceptions, such as Fair Use, which I will describe in a later post, but to read ahead, see What Every Writer Ought to Know about Fair Use.
What’s Protected by Copyright Law?
Literary works, music and lyrics, dramatic works, graphic and sculptural works, sound recordings, architectural works and more.
What’s NOT Protected by Copyright Law?
- Titles, names, short phrases
- Objective information such as actual events, data and statistics, although any commentary and analysis are copyrightable.
- Ideas, procedures, methods, and concepts. A description or illustration of any of these is copyrightable, but not the underlying concept.
How Long Does a Copyright Last?
- For the life of the author plus 70 years.
- If there is more than one author, the life of the last surviving author plus 70 years.
- If the creator is a corporation or other entity, then 95 years from first publication, but not longer than 120 years after creation.
- So if you publish a book at age 40 and live to age 80, the copyright will last 110 years!
Not anymore. Copyright is automatic whether or not you mark the work with a ©. But it’s best to use the mark. That way an infringer may not claim that he or she was an “innocent infringer,” and you may be able to recover a larger award.
The copyright notice has three parts.
- © or Copyright .
- Year of first publication, which generally means the year the work was first distributed to the public. On unpublished material, the notice should read: “Unpublished Work © year author".
- Name of copyright owner, which may be a pen name or the name of an entity such as a corporation. If is there more than one copyright owner, name all of them.
Should You Register a Copyright?
Registration is no longer required, but it’s a good idea. Registration establishes a record of your work and you must register a work before you can file an infringement suit. Prompt registration (within three months following publication) increases the damages you might recover. On-line registration is currently $35, so there is no excuse for delay.
There is no such thing as an international copyright. However, many countries have signed treaties which provide reciprocal recognition of copyrights.
Are Copyrights Transferrable?
Yes. And they are sliced and diced into various pieces.
In most cases, writers grant licenses. A license is a right to use only; you, the creator, retain actual ownership of the copyrighted work. A license is similar to a lease. If you are a landlord, you lease portions of your property to various tenants for various periods, but you still own the building.
Licenses may be exclusive or non-exclusive, world-wide or geographically restricted, short-term or perpetual, royalty-free or royalty-paying, limited to particular media such as audio books, print, eBooks, or a particular language; the permutations are endless.
When you grant licenses, be as specific as possible about what you are granting. Vague descriptions are not your friends. Details are. Examples are. Be redundant, precise, and lawyerly. There is no way to overdo it.
Will CreateSpace, IngramSpark or Smashwords Take My Copyright?
No. When you engage a POD provider or eBook distributor, you will not be and should not be transferring any rights to them other than the non-exclusive license to produce and distribute books for you. You should never assign ownership to a POD or eBook provider. If anyone asks for it, RUN.
Stay tuned for my later posts on how to spot theft by contract.
(Disclaimer: Helen Sedwick is licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.)
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