Post Publishing, Prepublishing

The Author and the Copyright

I AM NOT A LAWYER. I hope that’s a big enough disclaimer, but basically, I’m going to try to make my understanding of copyright (US-based experience) into a simple post.

In the USA, copyright is automatically applied the moment something becomes tangible—written/drawn on paper/computer (stories, song lyrics, pictures), recorded media (tv shows, music).

Tangible = shareable. Copyright cannot be applied to ideas.

This automatic copyright is applied for life+70 years, and this took effect starting January 1, 1978.

The copyright covers the expression of this particular idea in this unique form. It doesn’t protect the idea/concept. Look at Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping Beauty is a well-established fairy tale that predates Disney. Disney can’t copyright the story of a beautiful girl who pricked her finger and slept for a spell, but they can/did copyright how they retold the tale. Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, etc. are all popular stories that are retold through various forms, but how they are expressed (tangible product) is protected from being copied and distributed without authorization/fair use.

Sometimes, authorship and ownership are two different things. If you’re hired by a company to craft something as part of your job, the company owns the rights to the created material, but you maintain authorship.

Someone crafted the Coke or Pepsi logo, but that didn’t give the creator copyright over the icon. That icon is firmly in the company’s grasp.

Even if you don’t file for copyright with the government, you can still send Cease & Desist orders (C&Ds).

What does filing for copyright with the government provide?

If you believe someone has profited from your work/stole your work/plagiarized your work/ infringed, you can take them to court and demand or seek statutory damages and attorney’s fees.

Disney is notorious for filing C&Ds and taking legal action for ANYTHING they deem infringement.

What does copyright not cover?

Fair Use is the one big thing I think gets misunderstood. Regardless if you file for copyright or not, fair use is the ability of a person/business to share parts of your work in regards to criticism, comments, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research purposes.

There are a handful of movie reviews (CinemaSins), wrestling (Wrestling with Wregret), Yo! Videogames, and Ozzy Man channels on Youtube that use actual footage to contribute to their reviews. They are using the video footage in Fair Use. This could be applied to the written word if they wanted to talk about a scene in your book or about your book.

In some countries, parody falls under Fair Use and in other countries it does not.

How do you file for copyright?

For those in the USA, is the most straightforward way of doing it. 3rd party places like Legal Zoom can help you if you need them, but going direct will save you money.


1) Do I have to file for copyright before I publish my book?

No. You can file for copyright whenever you want. It’s considered safer to do it prior to your book going live, but as long as you file 3 months prior to taking someone to court, you’re fine.

2) Is there anything fancy I have to do to have the copyright page in my book?

No. Since copyright goes into effect as soon as your story becomes tangible, you can word the copyright of your book in any manner you want.

Some writers will forego copyright, giving people permission to share the product far and wide.

3) Can I copyright my book’s title?

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. No. Titles CANNOT be copyrighted. Do not pull a Hopkins or whoever that was that fired allegation shots against Nora Roberts.

Trademarks can be filed for series titles, and those are complicated to get and are not automatically applied.

Writer’s Digest gives a straightforward answer if you want more information.

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This post was edited/proofed by Dennis Doty and ProWritingAid.

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