The legal plight of authors
A five-part series of NOT legal advice by somebody who is confused
Hi and welcome back to my blog. If it’s your first time here, I hope you enjoy the post and consider visiting every week.
As you can read above, this is the second installment of a series of posts regarding the legal problems, tasks, and tribulations all writers and, particularly, authors, face.
The very first thing I must point out is a disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. What follows are comments on what I have found scouring the internet, talking to published friends, and some insights from a couple of Q&A sessions I’ve had with actual legal professionals.
On with the show!
For today’s topic, Copyright, I’m going to begin by quoting directly from the U.S. Copyright Office Definitions (you can find the original text at https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/definitions.html).
What is Copyright?
According to the definition at the U.S. Copyright Office, it is: A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for “original works of authorship”, including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. “Copyright” literally means the right to copy but has come to mean that body of exclusive rights granted by law to copyright owners for protection of their work. Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, title, principle, or discovery. Similarly, names, titles, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, coloring, and listings of contents or ingredients are not subject to copyright.
So, from the definition above, we know that the phrase: “How you doin’?” with maybe an eyebrow wiggle is readily identifiable from the T.V. series “Friends”, but can not be copyrighted.
However, if we started our novel with: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” and went on from there we would be infringing on the Copyright of Charles Dickens. If they are still in effect.
We, as writers and authors, want to protect our intellectual property. We know, for a fact, that what is on the page is not a whim, or was easy to bring forth. It required hours of writing. Then many, many (many, many) hours of editing. Then nail bitting while beta readers did their thing. Then going back and tweaking it some more. Then we had a developmental edit, then… Well, you get the picture. We don’t want a story that has to be made public if we are to publish it, to be picked up by some unscrupulous person, have them copy it whole cloth or close enough as to make no difference, and publish it under their name, charging for it as if it was their original work.
You know all this, of course. What you probably thought I was going to talk about was how to get your work Copyrighted and what alternatives are there for you.
According to the Office of Copyright of the U.S., your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. In other words, the moment you declare your manuscript finished and either print it or save it on your computer as a finished product, it is your copyright. In general, registration of the work for Copyright is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work, and the earlier it is Copyrighted, the better.
Let’s start by saying that a copyright fight is going to be a dirty, uncomfortable, dragged-out experience. It is always difficult and people that incur in such behavior are, by definition, not nice. They will try to get away with anything they can.
So, in the unlikely event, you need to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a work of fiction is yours, there are several ways of doing it.
First, of course, is the metadata in your original digital file. I’m only familiar with Word, but I understand from people who use them that other writing tools also add to the file original date and if there is an identification attached to the program or the device, it adds that too. This is useful but hardly enough.
Then, we can and should use email. Once you have your first daft cleaned up, you should email it, to yourself or to someone you absolutely trust. There, you have a digitally dated trail that will help you show for a fact, that the work originated with you in its early stages.
You should do this with each draft and version of your work. Keeping an “old” version of your work will not only be helpful in your editing process, but will also give you clear history of development and, thus, of authorship.
There is a recommendation I have heard that, once you have completed your manuscript and it is ready for publishing, you should print the whole thing (that is to say everything, from title page to appendices) and mail it to yourself in a sealed and tamper-proof envelope. Once received, do not open the envelope, but rather put it away for safekeeping. It contains an “original copy” with an “official” date on the envelope that can be admitted in court as evidence of you having the complete work in your possession from that date, which should predate the publishing by the villains of this story.
Although all of these are useful supporting evidence, none will have the weight of a Copyright in a court of law, because the copyright has absolutely no provisions for anything else except a legal registration of the work.
How do you get a Copyright?
Well, the first thing you do in the U.S. is go to the Copyright and Trademark Registration web page: https://www.copyright.gov/registration/, although, as usual, there are many non directly government companies that will Copyright your work for you… for a fee. Always make sure they are reputable and always check the fees. Make sure that you are indeed getting the Copyrights, and not them
There you can register to copyright protect your original work(s). You start by registering and submit your work through the online form. You are off to the races.
I must point out that here we are talking at all times about registering the work in the U.S. and, while the United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, these countries honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. However, the United States does not have such copyright relationships with every country. If you are going to publish abroad, you must make sure you are covered in terms of Copyright. (For a list of countries and their relations to the United States check out https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ38a.pdf)
Be aware that you must take care when registering a group of works versus a single one. If you use the form for a single registry for two or more, the office might only register one of the works. There are forms for registering multiple works, up to ten.
For the purpose of this blog, we will be addressing such material as novels, short stories, articles, poems, website contents, or dissertations. When prompted, to register any of these, you must select Literary Work.
The process is relatively straight forward and the forms for registering original material can be found at https://www.copyright.gov/forms/
The cost of registering a single work, at the time this blog is being written, is between $45 and $65.
Of course, if you wish to expedite or avail yourself of other bureaucratic procedures, the cost will go up.
There you have it. Registering a Copyright is a relatively simple thing, but truly invaluable. Is it worth the $65? Maybe. Do you think your work can be the target of people that will try to publish it completely or in part for themselves? If not, then you are probably OK, since you do have copyrights from the very start. However, in a court of law, things might get sticky.
Only you can decide if you need to make the cash outlay. I can only let you know what I’ve found out and give you a heads up of where to find information and where to register. Since I’m not a lawyer, I can only speculate here with you and hope for the best.
Are you going to register for copyright? Why? Or why not? Please, let me know in the comments.
In case you are curious, I will register my work when I finally come out with it. It’ll be… fun. Thanks for reading and have a great day