I’m not a lawyer either, so I won’t bore you, darling reader, by pretending I have deep expert knowledge. But I believe all writers MUST know how copyright affects them – whether they care or not.
Here’s the classic newbie question: “I just finished writing my first children’s book, and I’m wondering about the Copyrighting process. Is it really necessary to do it at all?”
DO you need to copyright your book?
Good news! If you’ve written a book in one of 162 Berne Convention countries worldwide, you’ve already “copyrighted” it – it’s automatic. (If you’re not living in one of them, maybe you should move...)
Once you've written something, you own it. Nobody else can use it or take it away. This copyright protection is almost universal. Trouble is, if there's ever a problem, you've got to prove that you're the person who originated the content. There are various ways of doing this.
That’s where the distinction comes in between HOLDING a copyright (automatic) and PROVING your copyright.
1. Holding Copyright ≠ Proving Copyright
That’s a simple enough equation for anyone to understand – even if they’re not a lawyer.
One way to prove you hold the copyright for whatever content you want to claim is by REGISTERING your copyright. In the U.S., you can do this for under $40 through the U.S. Copyright Office (possibly cheaper if you do it through their website – probably tons easier there, too). In Canada, you do it through the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (couldn’t find the cost at their website). Other countries will have different ways of accomplishing this.
But remember, all of these sites are just ways to REGISTER your copyright, in case of future dispute or just to ensure your own peace of mind.
2. The postmark myth!
You may have heard, as I had, that you can mail your manuscript to yourself and keep it in a sealed envelope showing the postmark in case you ever need to go to court to prove your copyright claim. Some people even call this the “poor-man’s copyright” – because it’s cheaper, get it!
Sorry, guys, this is a myth.
My favourite myth-busting website, Snopes, says it’s not worth wasting the postage, though this technique may provide some backup of your claim in Britain. It’s simply too easy to steam an envelope open and/or forge this type of "proof."
You already know there are tons of companies out there who want to prey on writers, right?
Well, some of them want to charge you an arm and a leg for "copyright" anything. Registering with them offers “independent third-party” confirmation of your claim. This may stand up in a court of law, but they’ll probably charge more for it upfront and may also try to wangle more money out of you for other “writers’ services” they purportedly provide.
4. Are you giving it away for free???
Be careful when posting original content to ANY website or work-for-hire site (fiverr, elance, odesk, etc) - many have as part of their conditions that you automatically forfeit any copyright you may hold to whatever you are submitting.
On fiverr, for example, copyright automatically goes to the buyer unless you mention specifically in your gig terms that it stays with you; some artists on fiverr offer the option to buy the copyright for extra money.
This also applies to information you submit to websites. Generally, their “terms and conditions,” that fine printy stuff at the bottom that nobody reads, says that whatever you type into a box at their site is OWNED by them, for free, from now on.
On Amazon.com, for example, this means that if you enter a review in a spirit of sharing with the community of readers and authors, they now own your review and can use it in any way they like. That also means writers cannot use excerpts from Amazon reviews (like on the back of their next book) without Amazon’s permission.
I’m not saying don’t write reviews or participate in community forums… just know when you’re giving the good stuff away for free.
Listen to this big blooper I committed just a few weeks ago. I wrote a freelance article I was really proud of, and the article subject suggested a newspaper that I was familiar with. So I went to the paper’s website, filled in the submission page and attached my article. The editor emailed me the next day to say it was up on their site.
Huh? What about getting paid? Just a “wham, bam… and thanks for your submission, ma’am”???
Before I emailed him back, I went back to the submission form to read it more carefully… and noticed the fine print at the bottom: “_____ does not pay for unsolicited submissions.” Eek. Despite my years of experience, I had given it away for free when I didn’t even mean to.
5. The most important thing to remember about copyright.
The most basic thing to know about copyright is that you can only copyright something concrete, an actual piece of work (writing, illustration, music) that you have created.
You cannot copyright an idea!!!
Even if it’s the best idea in the world, you can’t register it. If you have an idea for a story about a guy who sells hats and some monkeys come along and take the hats, that is NOT something that can be copyrighted, and you can’t shake your fists and stamp your feet when someone like Esphyr Slobodkina comes along and does it first (and probably better) with the classic kids’ book Caps for Sale.
(I felt terribly guilty going through most of this post without any specific reference to children’s books!)
Note also that copyright doesn’t prove you created something from scratch, or even that it was your idea to begin with! All it proves, even if you’ve registered your copyright claim, is that you had the material at a certain date. If someone else comes along and proves that they had all or part of that material at an EARLIER date – boom, there goes your copyright “protection.”
Remember that you automatically OWN and HOLD the copyright to your work unless you sell or give it away. But you may want to REGISTER your copyright so that if it’s disputed, you have a way to PROVE it’s yours.
There’s lots and lots to know about the topic of copyrights and some of it is way over my head. For example, different countries have different rules about how long copyright lasts after you publish your work and/or die. There’s also a ton of politics involved that I don’t even want to think about… all I want to do is write, and not have anybody else get paid for my work.
Instead of trying to take on more than I can handle, I’ll let you click through to Wikipedia for a good overview of what copyright means: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_registration. Here’s another reasonably entertaining post about copyright myths.
By the way, the image above of the “battle over copyright” is Copyright 2011 by Christopher Dombres, courtesy of Wikimedia. (According to its licensing terms, this image is free to use with artist attribution – that’s not true for every image on Wikimedia.)
I’d love to hear what YOUR experiences have been with copyright – good or bad. As a writer, do you register your copyright every time? If not, why not? And have you ever had to defend your claim against infringement? Let’s hear all about it!!!