Tackling Copyright

The world of copyright law can be confusing so let’s start with the basics.

What Copyright Protects

Copyright law protects works of authorship including short stories, novels, nonfiction articles, poetry, newspaper/magazine articles, brochures, computer software, text advertisements, manuals and databases. Other protected works include the motion picture and audiovisual realm.

Copyright law does not protect ideas, facts, inventions, processes, words, names, symbols or proprietary information. Those fall into another arena with different protection laws such as a trademark.

Within the copyright laws there are various types of rights you gain that can be individually assigned to a third party. Giving one right up does not mean you give up the others, unless explicitly stated. Within the copyright protection law, you own the following:

  • The Right to Reproduce the Work: the rights to copy, imitate, reproduce, duplicate or transcribe the work in fixed form.
  • The Right to Derivative Works: the right to modify the work to create a new work. A new work that is based upon an existing work is a “derivative work”.
  • The Right to Distribution: the right to distribute the work to the public by sale, rental, lease or lending.
  • Public Display Right: the right to show a copy of the work directly to the public (e.g., hanging up a copy of a painting in a public place) or by means of a website, film, slide, or television image at a public place or to transmit it to the public.
  • Public Performance Right: this is the right to recite, play, dance, act or show the work at a public place or to transmit it to the public.


Infringement can occur when any of these rights are violated without your permission.


Exceptions to the Infringement Rules

There are three recognized exceptions to the infringement rules which would allow someone to reproduce the work of another without the assignment of rights;

  • When the use is considered “fair use”. Fair use is when one reproduces copyrighted work for a limited purpose of teaching, reviewing literary criticism and the like. This means having a book review, or studying an author’s work in school. Fair use is generally determined on a case by case basis.
  • When the work is in the public domain. Public domain simply refers to works that are no longer covered by the copyright law.
  • When the material is not copyright-able. Non copyright-able works are facts, or ideas that were already discussed and do not fall under the law.


How to Get Your Work Copyrighted

So as an author looking to get published, how would you go about getting a copyright protection for your work? Believe it or not, you already have it. The original author owns the copyright to their work unless designated to a third party. The moment you took pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, protection automatically arose.

However, the work must be original and not copied from another source. A copyright notice does not need to be placed on the work for the protection to apply, but as an author you should still get in the habit of putting a copyright notice on your work. This will help prevent someone claiming “innocent infringement” or being unaware that the work was protected.


How Long Copyright Lasts and “Work for Hire”

For works created on and after January 1, 1978, the copyright term for works created by an individual is the life of the author plus 50 years. The right to enforce the copyright is owned by the owner of the copyright. Usually, that will be the author of the work. However, if an employee creates a work within the scope of the employee’s employment, any work created belongs to the employer. If a “work for hire” agreement is signed, the copyright to the work created will belong to the developer of the project. “Work for hire” agreements are common in the entertainment industry as well as in ghostwriting arrangements. You as the author must realize that if such an agreement is signed, he or she is giving up all his or her rights for the finished product forever.


Registering Your Work

So now that you as the author of original work own your copyright, is there any point to formally registering with the U.S. Copyright Office? While you can hope no one ever infringes upon your work, it is in your best interest to prepare for the worst. In order to sue someone for infringement, you must first be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. You cannot sue someone for infringement prior to registering your work.

Registering your work is inexpensive and easy. Simply fill out the copyright application and mail it in with a check and nonreturnable copy of the work. If your work has already been published and you wish to copyright it, you must do so within 3 months of publication.

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