Friday, January 31, 2014

Five facts about copyright that won’t bore you to tears.

imageMy father used to teach real estate and his students once gave him a sweatshirt that said, “Not a lawyer,” because he used the phrase so often in class.

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."

3.  imageBuyer beware!

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, 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!!!

image 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.”

Quickie Take-away:

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:  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!!!


  1. This article was very helpful to me. Thank you, Nora Lee

  2. Thanks, Nora & Mariana - happy you stopped by!!!

  3. I was searching my Groups on LinkedIn to find out this exact information. Thank you!

  4. Great post! I use the online form on the US Copyright website. Takes a bit to get the hang of it. One tip: I was able to register all 7 volumes of my Kitten and Friends series for the $35 fee. Lot cheaper than registering each book. Also, I have a separate agreement with illustrators and co-writers. I had a lawyer draw up a standard contract.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Smart tip! I can totally get behind saving $$$. And yes, I totally overlooked the part about copyright as it pertains to illustrators. Thank you for that.

  5. Thanks for the great post, Jennifer. I am forwarding it to my writerly friends. Quick question: I am a publisher to a small NYC press in its infancy, and I just came on board. I noticed that my predecessor did not register any copyrights for our existing books, and I am about to do this. However, after reading this line from your article ("All it proves, even if you’ve registered your copyright claim, is that you had the material at a certain date."), it occurred to me that the books did exist, unpublished, but still belonging to the authors, before we published them. Therefore, is it still appropriate to copyright the book according to our publication date — when the book was printed and ready for sale through our company? I know this is the custom, but I wonder why. And this also makes me wonder, do I register the copyright under my company's name, or under the author's?

    On a side note, we publish poetry and short stories, so many of the pieces of the books we publish have been published before. While all of the places that carried these pieces are mentioned in each book's Acknowledgements section, I just want to make sure that this doesn't affect anything I do when registering the copyright.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Jennifer!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Kimberly! I'm glad this information was helpful to you.
      Like I said, I'm very much not a lawyer. I don't even live in the U.S. But it is my understanding that a COLLECTION of works can be copyrighted in addition to any previous copyrights that might have existed (and continue to exist) prior to publication.
      It seems to me that your company would hold the copyright to any collection you create. Although a collection republishes material (with permission, of course!), there is a great deal of "value added" in terms of editorial judgement, often an introduction to the book or to each piece, new illustrations, cover, marketing, etc. So you invest in that by registering the copyright.
      That said, this sounds like a very tangled area, and as a publisher, you have to protect yourself not only from copyright infringement by others but from taking rights which should remain with your authors and or leaving rights with authors that should transfer to you.
      Like I said - tangled. Invest in yourselves by finding a good publishing lawyer. :-D

    2. Thanks again, Jennifer! I appreciate all the great advice!

  6. Thanks for this Jennifer! If I copywrite a book in Canada, does that cover all countries, or would I need to get a new copywrite if I were going to try and sell the book in the US?

  7. No, as far as I know your copyright holds in all Berne Convention countries. But how will you prove it? A bigger issue than plagiarism, generally, is holding onto rights when selling or otherwise publishing a book... that's where lawyers come in.

  8. Haha, i just noticed that I used write instead of right. That is exactly what I get for staying up way beyond my bedtime. Please excuse my dorkiness!!

    I am currently looking at both self publishing and traditional publishing routes. The research has my mind boggled, to be truthful. There are so many options for self publishing, and so much work involved on my part, but the other option has its own set of downfalls. Purchasing my rights seems to be the only somewhat simple thing in the whole process!

  9. Now that is a very interesting article indeed.
    I have a question, which is probably already answered in this post: when it comes to writing, does this apply to any format, whether Word documents or a few posts on a blog? I mean, I understand that one should thoroughly read through the terms and conditions of a website or a blog to make sure they cannot snatch one's texts away for themselves. But if you post online, may someone attempt to publish a concrete paper-and-ink book with your writing, and can you act against it?

    I hope I've been clear :)


    1. I've mentioned Amazon a couple of times... it's worth mentioning that th1eir TOC says that whenever you post there, "you grant Amazon a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media."

      So yeah, they could write a book and include all your reviews ever, for no cost.

      Obviously, something private on your hard drive in a word document is very safe. But be careful about submitting it even to paying media outlets, which may have fine print somewhere that says they own whatever you send them and can do whatever they want with it.

      Google's (ie Blogger's) TOC is a little scary-sounding: "you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content."
      But they qualify it by adding, "The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones."

      There are two problems with "acting against it," as you say.

      1) How will you find out your stuff has been stolen? I wrote an article years ago for a legitimate magazine, and this year discovered it on a Disney website with a different byline. Just happened to have googled a phrase from the article at random; it had been up like that for years.

      2) What will you do about it if it does happen? Against Disney, I realized I had no clout. Still, I asked to be compensated for my article and bylined correctly. Nobody ever responded to my email, but a couple of weeks later, the article was down.

      We the little guy don't have a lot of muscle, and the money it would cost to defend a claim of lost intellectual property is probably more than it's worth.

      This article suggests leaving clear copyright and attribution information on your blog so that at least if people steal you make it easier for them to give you credit and a link back.

      You could disable copy/paste, but I don't suggest it because anyone (even me) can get around it. Or there are utilities like Tynt that automatically paste a back link when people copy your material. Probably wise to do it but I haven't yet.

      Hope this has helped!

  10. Wow, I wish I had read this article sooner. Someone close to me kept telling me that the cheapest way to copyright my work and make sure that no one steals it is to mail myself a copy and never open it. So this morning my husband and I went to the post office and did just that, because this person has been very vocal about the need to protect my work (she had some of her writing stolen years ago). I didn't realize you could forge something like unopened envelopes... sigh... Thanks for sharing all of this so people like me don't throw money away on unprovable proof of copyright.

  11. Thank you for posting this. YES I have heard a lot of these myths as well. Like everyone here, I also have a children's book in the works.
    It was suggested to me is to go to and register a domain name with my book title in order to have ownership.
    Is this a futile attempt as well?

    1. Joe: This is a fantastic question. Unfortunately, titles cannot be copyright-protected - just what's inside your story. For instance, I remember reading (a million years ago) in Leo Buscaglia's book Love, where he explains that anybody can use any title for their book. Even if that title has been used many times. I could probably write a book called Goodnight Moon and publish it, as long as it was substantially different inside from the original one.
      Given that what you're getting when you register a domain name is ONLY the title of the book, I would think this would give you very little protection, copyright-wise. But if you plan to promote the book with the domain, it is probably worthwhile to secure it ahead of time anyway.
      Hope that makes sense.
      Here's more information about copyright and domain names. Hope it's helpful.

    2. p.s. Forgot to add - good luck with your book!

  12. Thanks for responding so quickly. I do intend to use the domain as an official site for the book. I am a Animation Story Artist by profession, and I pitch my T.V ideas to studios from time to time. This book started as a T.V series inspired by my son, however I realized I fully control this idea as my own book series. Yes it may sound big but I have the episodes that I will change to books. all in different stages from just the title to premise and script , even just drawings of characters. I've been at it for 2 years now on my own time.
    Visually telling a story for me is a lot easier that writing in a book format. To make it easier for me to write and edit, I wrote it in a screen play format. Because I work from scripts,the process it's quicker to edit and I am able to give it a sense of flow and keep track of time. What I mean is a written script page is about a minute of animated film time. Example- 11 to 13 pages of script is an 11 minute episode.
    I have got to a 3rd draft in a script form of about 35 pages. Now I'm happy with the pacing and arcs and holes are patched. The Hard part I am finding is writing it out as a Adventure Chapter book. a book will introduce a character and give some insight right away about the character of the environment, where as in movies and T.V we show it visually.
    20 yrs of story telling and I experience the rookie moments. HA HA. Always learns as an artist.
    Sorry for babbling on.
    Thanks again. I hope to chat with you again some time. I will surly be asking you on your blog.

  13. I believe it was in Aaron Shepard's book about writing for children, in which he talks about his experience of coming to writing kids books from writing plays and scripts, and how it has made his books more fun and livelier. (I just checked, and the Kindle version of his book is only a penny right now, by the way...)
    So it sounds like you have a similar process, and some very strong ideas about how this whole thing will unfold. I wish you a ton of success. Do stop back and let me know how it's going!


As always, I love to hear from you.