A Quick and Dirty Guide to Copyrighting Your Work

A Quick and Dirty Guide to Copyrighting Your Work

If you want to know why it’s important to copyright your artistic creation, just ask George A. Romero.

(Not literally, of course. The guy’s dead.)

(Or IS HE?)

Romero’s classic horror film Night of the Living Dead is and always has been a public domain creation because the original theatrical distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, forgot to put a copyright notice on the film. According to copyright laws in 1968, that meant Romero had no legal claim to his own creation, which meant anyone could show, sell, or reimagine the movie without having to receive permission from Romero and without having to pay for the privilege.

Copyright laws have gotten a little better since then. As of 1978, writers are considered to be the legal copyright holder the minute he types out the first word of their manuscript. You don’t even have to add the “© Copyright [Year of Creation] – Indie Author” notice anywhere, though it’s generally considered a good idea as it strengthens any legal defense of your work in the event of plagiarism or unauthorized use.

That also happens to be why you should consider going through the formal process of copyrighting your work.

While the inherent copyright that comes with creating a work and the addition of a copyright notice have legal standing, they don’t have strong legal standing. Without a formal copyright from the US Copyright Office (https://www.copyright.gov/) you cannot sue for copyright infringement in the US, nor can you receive statutory damages for copyright infringement if said infringement occurred before the work was registered (or within three months of post-publication registration).

That doesn’t mean you have no recourse if you find someone using your work without your permission. You have the right to send cease-and-desist (C&D) or Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices, and that’s often enough to make an offender back down, but if you have to go to the next step of litigation, you’re not going to get far without that formal copyright.

To obtain a formal copyright, you register your work with the US Copyright Office, which does cost money — $105 for “a document of any length including no more than one title,” i.e., your novel. You can file electronically, but you will still need to provide a hard copy for the Library of Congress, so there will be mailing expenses as well.

FYI the first: there are any number of outfits that claim they will help you file for a copyright. A few are complete scams that are actually trying to steal your copyright out from under you, but more likely they’re just trying to make money by doing the work for you. The process really isn’t that complicated. You figured out how to write and publish a novel. Figuring out the copyrighting process is a comparative cakewalk.

FYI the second: there is no legally defensible shortcut to obtaining a formal copyright. A common myth is that you can obtain a copyright by sending a copy of your manuscript to yourself via registered mail, effectively making the US Postal Service your “witness,” but the so-called “Poor Man’s Copyright” provides no more protection than simply slapping the © mark on your work.

Some final quick-hit factoids:

  • Posting a work online does not automatically make it public domain. You have to explicitly declare that your work is public domain before anyone else can use it legally.
  • Anyone who uses your copyrighted material without your permission, even if they do not realize financial gain from its use, is in violation of your copyright. That includes fanfic writers using your stories as inspiration for their own (or fanfic you write yourself and post online).
  • “Fair use” allows for limited reproduction of copyrighted material, usually for purposes of commentary and critique — e.g., someone posting a copy of your book’s cover art along with short excerpts from the book, preferably with full attribution to the creator, as part of a book review.
  • Unlike trademarks, you do not have to actively defend your copyright in order to retain it.
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