Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Copyright Myths Authors Should Know About

Authors are no strangers to bullshit. We listen to book reviewers, we have agents, we troll forums; we are constantly immersed in a world of people who think they know what they're talking about. Sometimes this can be helpful, like when we meet other authors with more experience, or when we chat with representatives or publishers. A lot of the time though we meet people who are spouting absolute tripe they heard from their second cousin who's writing a slash fiction of John Carter and Tars Tarkas. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference, which is why this week the Literary Mercenary is talking about copyright.

What Is It?

Before we get into too many details let's talk about what a copyright actually is. According to the U.S. Copyright Office copyright is a legal right for someone to make copies of, sell, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or other creative work. A copyright is good for the life of the author, and then for a period of 70 years after the author dies. If the work was anonymous then copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation (whatever comes first).

The deaths of characters are inconsequential to the life of a copyright.
Those are the basics. Despite how simple copyright sounds though we get all kinds of confused about what actually comes after. It's why we have myths like...

If You Don't Register It Then People Will Steal Your Idea!

I don't know how many paranoid scribblers I've met who won't tell anyone what their books are about, and who have fits at the very idea that someone might read it before it's published. They mail copies of their stories to themselves, and tell you that until you register your work with the U.S. copyright office that it isn't copyrighted and anyone can steal it.

This is a 10-pound tub of bullshit.

I should know... I filled it!
Every work you create has a copyright from the moment it's created according to this. Remember that the next time someone offers to "help you out" by charging a "nominal fee" to get your work copyrighted.

I'm Not Infringing The Copyright Because I Spelled It Different!

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are.

We're not talking about public domain works; that's a whole different kettle of fish. What we're talking about is taking a popular work that is copyrighted (say Twilight for instance) and then writing your own strange, twisted sex fantasy using the same world and the same characters. That's derivative fiction, and it requires the copyright holder to give you the okay to do it. You can't just publish that work and claim that it doesn't violate the initial author's copyright.

*coughs uncomfortably*
There are all sorts of derivative works on the market. That said, no, someone can't just copy your work, switch around the I and the E in your lead's name, and then just claim that their book is different. That goes both ways.

But Fair Use!

For those of you not familiar with fair use it's a legal idea that says in certain, narrow circumstances you can reproduce a copyrighted work without violating the copyright, or having to pay a fee in order to do so. If you're reviewing the item in question, using it for scholarly research or using it in the classroom then generally speaking your intent falls under fair use. The same goes for parodies and other forms of commentary more often than not.

That's why no one sues this guy when he writes songs more popular than the ones they're based on.
Fair use is very, very limited though. You can't lift whole chapters, paragraphs, or even lines from poems or songs without running into the question of how much is too much for fair use. More often than not fair use won't protect you if you're making money off of someone else's material in some way, shape, or form (see the above caption for one of the only exceptions to this rule).

I Can't Put My Story Online, I'll Lose My Copyright!

No, you won't.

There's this weird idea that persists among people that if you found it online then it's public domain. If there's no little "c" symbol then the work isn't copyrighted and you're free to take and use it. If someone is offering you a free download or a file transfer then it's totally cool. No, it isn't; it's piracy, and you can be sued for it.

I feel a "but" coming on...
There are buts, and all authors should be aware of them. First of all you can sign away your copyright. For instance, say that you took a job from Tor to write a short story for an anthology. Part of this contract is that you will be paid $400 for the short, but all of the rights concerning it no longer belong to you as the creator. This is one of the only ways you can lose your copyright; because you sold it as stipulated in a contract. "Work For Hire" is the phrase to look out for with this one.

The other issue involves publishing rights, which is different from copyright and often a source of confusion. Say you get a contract from Random House for a novel you've posted online (maybe you wrote it for NaNoWriMo or something, I don't know). RH might want exclusive worldwide print rights (meaning no other company can make print copies). They might also want exclusive, first-run digital rights... which might be an issue if it's been sitting up on the Internet for the world to see. On the one hand no, you have not given away your copyright. But what you have done is published it in a medium, which means that you can't give someone else the right to be first. That's the trade off; if you do publish your work in any way (self, small, or big name) then you've used some rights to that work.

That's it for this week's entry, though feel free to comment if you have questions or want to see other topics covered in the next Business of Writing entry I do. If you'd like to support this blog then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and consider becoming a patron today! If you want to keep up on all the latest and greatest for my updates then make sure you're following me on Facebook and Tumblr as well!


  1. Just what I needed to learn about. Thank you so much.

  2. I'll note a couple of omissions, such as the link to the US Copyright Office,, where you'll find copyright on anything produced today lasts for 70 years after the creator's death.

  3. This is really important information. I have been asked to pay a fee for my books to be copyrighted. How safe am I by not applying for one?

    1. If you're intending on just writing a book and publishing it then there's no need to contact the office and pay a fee. Just write the book and put it on the market through your preferred means (submit to a publisher, find an agent, self publish, etc.).

    2. Agree with Neal. You can put your own Copyright in the front matter, or the publisher will do this, such as the following. I think I am right in saying that you can register your work for free with your appropriate country's central library catalogue?

      All rights reserved.
      Copyright © Philip Miles Whyte, 2012, 2013

      Philip Miles Whyte is hereby identified as author of this work in accordance with Section 77 of the Copyrights, Designs and Patent Act 1988

      The book cover design is copyright to Philip Miles Whyte with individual photos contained copyright to the contributors as attributed in the “Acknowledgements” section.

      The paperback (first and original edition) of this book is published by Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd. under ISBN 978-1-78148-777-8

      This book is sold subject to the conditions that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent. Resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the authors prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it was published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

      A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library.

      For more information about the author and other works, please visit:

  4. Good stuff - I had read about all this before writing my first book, but is good to see it again as a reminder, especially about the publishing rights angles.

  5. Yes a work is copyrighted the moment you write it, but that can be very hard to prove. Getting a copyright from the government copyright office can be done in a few minutes online and only costs $35. The copyright office will send you a document, which is proof that you own the copyright, far superior in a court of law than schlepping in a laptop to dig up the original document. And, every time you change that document, the date on the document will change. Copyright is so much easier.

    1. Just ask yourself : Would it be more feasible to spend $35.00 to have certifiable proof of my work; or, to find a lawyer willing to file suit on my behalf for less?

    2. The date on the document may change, but the file creation date should stay the same. I agree you're better off spending the $35, but if your story remains unpublished on your laptop, there's rarely a good reason to do so...

  6. Great stuff, attention re-geared to reality.

  7. Good to know, thanks.