The Basics of Copyright

A guest post by Scott Boone.

Why are we talking about copyright?

As a writer, copyright is one of your primary assets. I’d put it right next to your reputation. If you are trying to build a career, copyright provides you with a legally enforceable means to reap monetary benefits from your work. It also gives you a high level of control over what is done with your work. Realize that what that means is that once you give up the copyright (by transferring it to someone else), you lose both, and you are limited to whatever the contract gives you.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a set of rights in a work of authorship. The exact scope of those rights differs slightly from country to country, particularly with respect to limitations and to moral rights, but the basic ones are the same. In the US, copyright gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works based on the work, and to distribute copies of the work. US copyright also gives additional rights depending on the types of work: to publicly perform the work (conduct a book reading, put on a play), to publicly display the work (hang a painting in a gallery), and to digitally transmit an audio work (streaming a sound recording).

These rights are “exclusive.” That means that they give the holder of copyright the power to prevent others from doing them. They do not affirmatively give the copyright owner the right to do them. So, the owner of a copyright in a work might not be able to distribute the work if some other law made it illegal to do so (e.g. because it was obscene or defamatory).

The rights last for a long time. In most countries, the duration is set at the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.

Importantly, copyright can be transferred in small bits and pieces. In other words, you do not have to transfer all the rights as one unitary block. You can limit a transfer by time (e.g. 6 months from publication for a short story) or by geography (e.g. North America) or by type of copy (e.g. hardback or trade paperback or eBook). The key is not to give away more than what a publisher is paying you for it.

 What does it take to get copyright?

For the vast majority of countries, you simply need to either (1) create the work or (2) create the work and fix it in a tangible medium of expression. That’s the standard set for countries that are members of the Berne Convention (166 countries and the Holy See). That’s it. Now, the US gives you some nice benefits for doing more (registration and notice), but it’s not required for obtaining copyright.

 US Copyright Law

I’m going to focus the rest of the discussion on US copyright law. Partly because that is what I know best and partly because the US cut its own path in copyright law for a long time and so has some differences in its law and lingering confusion among its creative professionals. Essentially, most of the rest of the world agreed on the basics of copyright in the late 19th century and the US dragged it feet screaming it didn’t want to play for the better part of a hundred years.

 Registration – Not required, but recommended

Registering your work with the Copyright Office is not required for you to obtain copyright. Remember you have copyright in your work as soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. However, registration does convey significant advantages that you may want to consider. First, after five years, registration of the work serves as prima facie evidence in a lawsuit that the registrant owns the rights in the work. In other words, it shifts the burden to the other party in the lawsuit to prove you don’t own the copyright. Second, timely registration of your work makes statutory damages available to you in an infringement lawsuit. Actual damages are often quite hard to prove. So having the option of statutory damages, where the court just sets a dollar amount for each work infringed, can be quite helpful. Third, timely registration also makes attorney’s fees available if you prevail in an infringement suit. If you win a suit, the infringer has to pay your attorney’s fees. The latter two benefits can make a huge difference in whether it is financially worth it to pursue an infringement claim. They can also serve as a large sword hovering over infringers, making them more amenable to settlement.

So what constitutes “timely registration”? A published work is timely registered for these purposes if it is registered either within three months of first publication or before the infringement begins. An unpublished work needs an effective registration date prior to the infringement.

 Copyright Notice – Not required, but useful

Copyright notice is either the word “copyright” or the copyright symbol (a ‘c’ in a circle) followed by the date of first publication and the name of the copyright holder.

Before the US became a signatory to the international copyright treaty, the Berne Convention, copyright notice used to be required for obtaining any federal copyright protection. If you published the work without copyright notice, it was dedicated to the public. In other words, it was not protected by copyright and was free to all. However, since 1989, the US has not required copyright notice. This was a part of the US harmonizing its law to the international standards set by the Berne Convention.

But you still probably want to put copyright notice on your published works. First, it tells the world that someone is claiming the rights in the work. There are still people out there who think what they find on the internet is free. Second, copyright notice removes the statutory defense of “innocent infringement,” a defense that can lessen damages in an infringement suit. Lastly, it is cheap. In fact, it’s pretty much free. So why not do it?

You will note that I did say “put copyright notice on your PUBLISHED works.” I specified published works because you can create confusion about the works publication status if you put copyright notice on something that has not yet been published. If you submit a work to an editor with a copyright notice on it, the editor may think it has been previously published because the industry practice is to use copyright notice after publication. At the very least, the editor will think you do not know how the industry works or think they may have a potential problem with prior publication. Do you really want to create more hurdles for yourself?


Guest Writer Bio:
M. Scott Boone lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where he works as a law professor in order to support a clowder of cats. He writes about legal issues affecting writers at When not writing or teaching, he is a self-proclaimed soccervangelist.

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