As the owner of an independent publishing house, I am often asked about copyrights by my clients. Although the U.S. Copyright Office rules are pretty straightforward, there are still many myths and misunderstandings about how the copyright laws work, and it is especially important for self-published authors to understand how to protect their work with a copyright.
Exactly what is a copyright?
Before we get to the rules, let’s get something out of the way: the correct spelling and definition of “copyright.” A copyRIGHT is exactly what the term says: the Constitutional RIGHT given to a creator to “protect original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” To copyWRITE is to write copy, which is what a copywriter does; duh. There is no such term as a “copyWRIGHT” as a “wright” is a builder or manufacturer of sorts: a millwright works in a mill, a cartwright makes carts, etc.
The Benefits of Registering Your Copyright
As an author, the most important benefit of having your work copyrighted is that the process legally and constitutionally protects you as the owner of your work. You have complete control of your intellectual property as well as who can profit from your work. A copyright protects literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. A trademark is different from a copyright: a trademark protects the “words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods.”
The Difference Between a Copyright and a Trademark
Many years ago, Domino’s Pizza was sued by Domino Sugar for trademark infringement because the pizza company was using the exact same name as the sugar company. The case was in litigation for years, during which time Domino’s Pizza had to change its name to “Dominick’s Pizza.” Domino’s Pizza finally won its case in court because the judge said there was no way the two foods could be confused. But it was a classic trademark case.
Now that you know that you cannot “trademark” your book, let’s return to how you can copyright your book. First of all, you cannot copyright your idea, your facts, you’re writing system, or your writing process. What you seek to copyright must be fully developed and exist in some kind of visible manner. Therefore yes, you can copyright the plot for your novel, as long as the plot is written down somewhere.
What a Copyright Protects and Does Not Protect
A copyright protects unpublished and published works and is under copyright protection from the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form accessible directly on paper or digitally as on an e-reader. Your work is copyrighted whether you officially register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office or not.
The title of your book cannot be copyrighted, however. That is why you may have noticed that there are many books with the exact same title, and why it is prudent to come up with a subtitle for your book to set it apart from other books with the same title.
Although your book is copyrighted the moment it is in an accessible form, it is also important to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office for a few reasons:
- To have a public record of the copyright and an official certificate of registration.
- To have the ability to bring a lawsuit against someone for infringement of the copyright, including suing for statutory damages and attorney’s fees.
You have five years from the date your work was published to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office and have prima facie evidence of your ownership to use in court if necessary.
Traditional book publishers always register the books they publish, but as self-published authors are responsible for registering their work themselves. Sometimes, the independent publishing service will register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office for an additional fee.
Final Thoughts about Your Copyright
Speaking of fees, the U.S. Copyright Office charges a range of fees for different services, but the basic copyright registration fee, as of this writing, is $105.00. You can register your work and pay the fee electronically, by mail, or in person. “Circular 4” is the official document that details the fees charged by the Register of Copyrights.
There are two enduring myths and misunderstandings that many people have about securing copyright.
- The “Poor Man’s Copyright”: it has been thought that if you mail a copy of your work to yourself via the U.S. Office, which is a Federal agency, that can substitute for an official registration because the package is stamped. That is an erroneous assumption and will not afford you an official registration of your copyright.
- Your U.S. copyright is valid all over the world. Well, yes and no. The United States has reciprocal copyright relations with many countries, but not with all. It would be prudent to check the U.S. Copyright website just to be sure.
So in summary, your book is copyrighted as soon as it is published, but you must apply for an official copyright registration if you want legal protection that you can take to court if necessary.
Pam and her team would love to talk to you about how we can help you publish and market your book. Please feel free to contact us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by filling out the form out our contact form.