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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 weve got the reality behind each.
Myth #1: You can protect your ideas with
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 its yours until you
sell or license it to someone else, or the period of copyright protection ends.
But ideas arent protected because theyre not considered to be in fixed form.
In other words, if you share your great idea for a screenplay with another
writerand she goes on to write an award-winning scriptyou cant complain of
Myth #2: You have to register to create
Copyright is considered to be created
concurrently with your written workmeaning that at the same time youre
reducing your thoughts to words, youre copyrighting your writing as well. Its
not necessary to register your copyright to protect it, but it does make it
easier to enforce it.
Heres why. First, registering your copyright is
evidence that you are the legal copyright owner and that the copyright is valid.
If youve registered the work within 3 months of publication or before any
infringement occurs and you win an infringement suit, youre entitled to
attorneys fees and statutory damagesa specified amount of money set out by
law. If you havent registered your work within 3 months of publication or
before the infringement, you may still have a cause of action for the wrong, but
youll be limited to injunctive relief (meaning that the violator can be
prohibited from using your copyrighted work) and/or actual damagesi.e., the
amount of money you have lost because of the violators actions or the amount
the infringer earned. In short, registering your work isnt 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
One of the most common myths is that mailing
yourself a copy of your writing helps protect your copyright. Im 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 dont need to include
a copyright notice on your workits automatically copyrighted, remember? A
copyright symbol doesnt 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.
Lets say you write an essay. If you dont put a
copyright notice on it and someone relies in good faith on the fact that theres
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! Thats
why even if a copyright notice isnt required, its 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 authors namee.g., (c) 2005, Kelly James-Enger.
Keep in mind though that publishers, agents, and
editors all understand this, so when submitting work for publication, its 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 questionand
that may mean selling or transferring the legal right to your work to someone
else. But if you sign whats called a work-for-hire agreementsuch as when you
work for a newspaper or magazine, for examplethe 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.
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