Columns > Published on December 19th, 2012

Library Love: Five Copyright Essentials For The Writer’s Toolkit

Original image via Wikipedia

“Copyright.”

Try to say it out loud without tone. Did it work, or did it sound more like “colonoscopy”? Did your lip curl and your voice painfully descend? Maybe it sounded more like “infringement” or “lawsuit” or “damages.” This neutral word has come to occupy a very scary place in our psyches, partly because the 24-hour news cycle loves a high-profile case and partly because copyright feels like medicine or auto repair or something in which an expert is needed to interpret and advise. Thankfully, the situation is not so nebulous. Let’s go over some basics.

1. Why Copyright Exists

It’s not to make our lives difficult. In fact, copyright exists to encourage a steady flow of innovation and creativity in society. The notion of copyright was included in the U.S. Constitution under Article I, Section 8, Clause 8: “the Congress shall have power…to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” A succession of acts, revisions, and landmark court cases have defined the terms and fields covered by copyright, but the purpose remains the same.

In practice it works like this: you come up with an amazing story and publish it as a book. As the copyright holder, only you can print and distribute your work, unless you specifically allow a third party to do so. Your book is successful, enabling you to support yourself and produce more creative works. Eventually, your book passes into public domain, allowing others to use it as fodder for their own creativity. That’s how we have Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

2. How A Work Becomes Copyrighted

“the Congress shall have power…to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

The moment you put your thoughts to paper or hard drive, your work is copyrighted. You own it. You may later choose to transfer or license the copyright in order to publish your work, but at the onset, you are the sole copyright holder. There are two protective steps for you to consider that aren’t required, but may help you down the line:

Include a copyright notice.

A copyright notice looks like this: © 2012 Stephanie Bonjack. It is not required by law to secure copyright, but it does remind the reader that the work is copyrighted. This becomes more and more important with electronic publishing, as it is very easy to cut and paste from a copyrighted work into your term paper (or Time magazine column). Make a practice of including a copyright notice in the footer of your documents, so even if I am reading page 30 of your 50-page draft, there is never any question whose work I am holding.

Register with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Registration creates a legal paper trail of your work. If you think you’re sitting on the next Fight Club and you’re worried that your neighbor might steal it and publish it under her name, register the story now. It takes about ten minutes to do and costs $35 per work to register online. Then, when your neighbor pulls a Mia from Californication, you can sue for big money and the law will be on your side.

3. Publication, Licensing, And Copyright

One of two things occur when you enter into a contract with a publisher: either you retain the copyright for the work and the publisher agrees to license it, or you transfer the copyright to the publisher. There are arguments for both practices.

The resources at a publisher’s disposal to promote and sell your work are considered the trade-off for relinquishing copyright. Publishers typically have advertising and distribution networks beyond what a single author has at his or her disposal. While social media is clearly changing this landscape, publishers (like music labels) still have a role in how creative works are marketed and disseminated. 20 years from now? Who knows.

Arguments for retaining copyright generally center around lawsuits and reproduction. Retaining copyright allows you to sue for infringement should someone present your work as their own. If the publisher owns the copyright to your work, then they would receive any damages awarded through an infringement lawsuit. That could mean big money for your publisher, but a lot of time spent with lawyers.

Reproduction is of more immediate concern for the burgeoning writer. Consider this scenario: as a writer, you build your audience by publishing stories in a variety of magazines, journals, and websites. You later decide you want to compile a collection of your best short stories and self-publish the collection through Kindle Direct. Amazon requires you to own the copyright to your work in order to proceed. If you have transferred the copyright for any of your stories in order to publish them, you will have to pay to license them for your compilation. That doesn’t make it impossible, but it will cost you. It would have been in your best interest to retain the copyright to your stories.

4. Fair Use Explained

Fair use is the acceptable use (usually reproduction) of a copyrighted work.

Copyright law names four factors to consider when determining whether a use is fair: 1) the purpose of use – is it for commercial or educational purposes; 2) the nature of the copyrighted work – is it published or unpublished, factual information or fiction; 3) what percentage of the work is used; and 4) the effect the use has on the commercial market for the copyrighted work.

The law names criticism, news, scholarship, and teaching as some of the common arenas for fair use. For example, a student could use an image she found on the Internet in an assignment without paying the photographer for permission to do so. She should still cite the source, but she doesn’t need to license the image. However, if she started an online business and used a poem you wrote in the website design, she would be infringing on your copyright.

5. How Long Copyright Lasts

Copyright duration has been on the rise ever since the Copyright Act of 1790, which established it as 14 years with the option to renew for another 14. Works created today are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years. There are no renewals. If the work was made for hire, was published anonymously, or was published under a pseudonym, then copyright is 95 years from the publication date or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

When you die, the copyrights to your works become part of your estate and are treated like tangible assets, so remember to include them in your will. If you were a successful author, then your copyrights can continue to generate income for your heirs for another 70 years! Yet another reason to retain the rights to your work.

When copyright expires, the work becomes part of the public domain, which is comprised of items that have expired out of copyright or never had copyright protection in the first place, like government documents. The creative portion of public domain is like your grandmother’s toy chest; it’s full of old, great stuff. Works in the public domain can be reproduced without permission. They can also be translated, edited, and reimagined. It’s a shame that copyright last so long now, as it prohibits artists from freely using recent material for their own creative projects. We’ll just have to make do with what we have: works published before 1923.


Hopefully, this primer has lifted some of the fog from what is admittedly a complicated topic, and you are ready to go forth and conquer with your new copyright knowledge. Did I miss anything? Do you have any burning questions? Let me know in the comments!

Get Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Stephanie Bonjack is an academic librarian based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches the relentless pursuit of information, and illuminates the path to discovery. She has presented at national and international library conferences, and is especially interested in how libraries evolve to serve the needs of 21st century patrons. When she’s not sleuthing in the stacks, she enjoys chasing her toddler across wide open spaces.

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