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Copyright: Keeping it and Protecting it
by Kelly James-Enger

How much do you know about copyright? Have you heard that mailing yourself a copy of your work protects your copyright? Or that you have to register your writing to create it? You may have fallen for one of the top five copyright myths, but we’ve got the reality behind each.

Myth #1: You can protect your ideas with copyright.

Copyright protection exists from the time the work is created "in fixed form". This means that as soon as you finish a poem, novel, or article, you automatically own the copyright and it’s yours until you sell or license it to someone else, or the period of copyright protection ends. But ideas aren’t protected because they’re not considered to be in fixed form. In other words, if you share your great idea for a screenplay with another writer—and she goes on to write an award-winning script—you can’t complain of copyright infringement.

Myth #2: You have to register to create copyright

Copyright is considered to be created concurrently with your written work—meaning that at the same time you’re reducing your thoughts to words, you’re copyrighting your writing as well. It’s not necessary to register your copyright to protect it, but it does make it easier to enforce it.

Here’s why. First, registering your copyright is evidence that you are the legal copyright owner and that the copyright is valid. If you’ve registered the work within 3 months of publication or before any infringement occurs and you win an infringement suit, you’re entitled to attorneys’ fees and statutory damages—a specified amount of money set out by law. If you haven’t registered your work within 3 months of publication or before the infringement, you may still have a cause of action for the wrong, but you’ll be limited to injunctive relief (meaning that the violator can be prohibited from using your copyrighted work) and/or actual damages—i.e., the amount of money you have lost because of the violator’s actions or the amount the infringer earned. In short, registering your work isn’t necessary but it makes the copyright law a more effective weapon if you need to use it.

Myth #3: Mailing a copy of your work proves copyright.

One of the most common myths is that mailing yourself a copy of your writing helps protect your copyright. I’m not sure where this idea got started but mailing a copy of your work to yourself just wastes postage. If you want to effectively protect your work, you should register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Myth #4: You must include a copyright symbol on work when submitting it for publication.

This is a tricky one. You don’t need to include a copyright notice on your work—it’s automatically copyrighted, remember? A copyright symbol doesn’t create copyright, but it does gives notice of ownership to those who might steal it and defend their actions under the so-called "innocent infringement" doctrine.

Let’s say you write an essay. If you don’t put a copyright notice on it and someone relies in good faith on the fact that there’s no copyright notice and includes it in her anthology of essays, he may not be liable for damages or may even be permitted to continue copying the work! That’s why even if a copyright notice isn’t required, it’s a good idea to keep it on work you distribute to the public so you can defeat the defense of innocent infringement if necessary. The notice required is the copyright symbol ©, or the word "copyright" or its abbreviation, the date the work was first published, and the author’s name—e.g., (c) 2005, Kelly James-Enger.

Keep in mind though that publishers, agents, and editors all understand this, so when submitting work for publication, it’s safe to leave the notice off.

Myth #5: The writer always maintains copyright to his/her work/

The owner of copyrighted material generally has the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do things including reproducing, distributing and displaying the work. In other words, if you own the copyright, you are free to do what you want with the work in question—and that may mean selling or transferring the legal right to your work to someone else. But if you sign what’s called a work-for-hire agreement—such as when you work for a newspaper or magazine, for example—the owner of the copyright is the company that employs you.

For more information about copyright registration procedures, visit www.loc.gov/copyright; forms are available at www.loc.gov/copyright/forms/ ) Currently it costs $30 to register work with the U.S. Copyright Office, but you can include more than one piece of writing on the same application. All unpublished work can be bunched and registered together and all work published at the same time can similarly be included in a single application.

© Copyright 2005, Kelly James-Enger

Kelly James-Enger has authored more than a dozen books, including Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success (Writers Digest, 2012) and Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writers Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (CreateSpace, 2010). Check out her blog, Dollars and Deadlines, for practical advice about how you can make more money in less time as a nonfiction freelance writer.

Other articles by Kelly James-Enger :

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