So far I’ve covered a heck of a lot about copyright—the history of it, the extensions and the infringements, the fair use and the public domain. But how does this all apply to you, dear reader, in real life? (With “you” here being all my fellow authors reading my blog.)
As a writer, you are, of course, completely immersed in the world you’re creating on the page. You’re thinking about plot points and well-crafted paragraphs. Your words sing on the page and your brain tingles. This is the life! You’re writing, creating! What could be better? In these moments, the furthest thing from your creative mind is your business mind—that part of your brain that reminds you to pay bills on time and warns you not to eat a second piece of cake. But once the ink has dried on the page (or the cursor has blinked after the last word), what comes next?
Even though writers tend to be highly creative and often artistic people, successful writers must learn to be rational, savvy businesspeople too. The whole purpose of copyright is so writers can make money from their creations, and if you’re still reading this blog, I assume you’re no different. Sure, there’s an immeasurable glory that comes with setting your words on a page knowing that they’re out there for all to see. Maybe you don’t care about the associated financial opportunities. Fine. But after all the sweat and love you poured into your manuscript, you should at least care enough about it to protect it. Wouldn’t it suck to suddenly see one of the stories from your short story collection published in a magazine that never paid you a dime for using your work? So it’s important to know how to protect yourself and your work.
To protect yourself, you should make sure to copyright your work. Your work is automatically considered copyrighted once it’s on the page or screen (in other words, in a physical format), so let the world know it. It’s as simple as putting your name, the year of completion (for unpublished works), and the word “copyright” or the symbol © (a “c” in a circle) somewhere on the work.
You should consider adding “All rights reserved” to your unpublished work’s copyright notice to indicate that you still own the complete bundle of rights that you’re entitled to as a copyright owner. These rights are:
• Reproduction of the work (making copies)
• Creation of derivative works based on the original (such as a screenplay version of a novel)
• Distribution of copies to the public (publishing and selling your book)
• Public performance of the work (such as a reading)
• Public display of the work (seems to apply more to visual art)
• Public performance of the work via digital audio transmission (a fancy term for sound recordings)
Don’t shove this list too far into the back of your mind, as we’ll be referring to this bundle of rights again in the near future.
Remember also that your copyright isn’t international—it’s only valid in the U.S., though many countries will offer some protection from infringement thanks to all those international copyright conventions and treaties (remember good old Berne?).
Although registering your copyright with the Copyright Office is no longer required in the United States, it’s still a wise thing to do. As I discussed in earlier entries, unregistered copyrights don’t get the same level of protection if infringement occurs as do registered copyrights. With the rise of information technologies that facilitate the duplication and sharing of information, it’s wise to be protected.
How do you register your copyright? All the information for registering your copyright can be found here. The site includes information on the forms you need to fill out, how to pay the fee, and how to submit the copy or copies of your work that are part of the application. As of today, it’ll cost you $45, but it’s money well spent. DON’T assume that mailing a copy of the manuscript for yourself and leaving it in an unopened envelope, known as poor man’s copyright, will hold up if you ever have an infringement problem. You’ll be a far poorer man if you never registered your copyright and can’t recoup legal fees in an infringement case. So DO be sure to register it with the Copyright Office.
The Copyright Office receives over 600,000 copyright applications a year, so don’t expect them to contact you unless there is a problem or they need more information. You won’t get any sort of confirmation that they’ve received your application, but once it’s been accepted and processed, they will send you a registration certificate.
What if you want to register your copyright under a pen name? Lots of people do so to protect their identities. Perhaps you’re a mathematician who wants to start writing sci-fi. Or you’re well-known as a mystery writer but you want to try your hand at romance. You can go about it in a couple of different ways. You can either register using your real name on the form as the author and then indicating your pseudonym, or you can register only under your pen name. (More detailed instructions are available on Form TX, which is the copyright registration form that’s available on the Copyright Office website linked above.) If you take this latter route, be aware that you may encounter problems concerning proof of ownership, so you should consult an attorney for advice before taking this route.
If you are published and work with an agent, you shouldn’t run into problems concerning payment, since the agent receives your royalty checks from the publisher and then issues you your money minus their commission. But if you work directly with a publisher, you can either reveal your identity but ask that they keep it secret or you can keep your identity a secret and make arrangements with your bank regarding checks made out to your pen name. We’ll talk more about agents and royalties soon, but since we were on the subject of copyright registration, I thought I’d throw this information in there.
Next time we’ll explore the publishing contract. Pages and pages of legalese? What’s a writer to do? I’ll try to help decipher what typically goes into a publishing contract and what it all means.