Copyright is a legal protection provided for “original works of authorship.” You automatically own a copyright in your original written work as soon as you commit it to writing. Neither publication nor notification are required to secure copyright.
Copyright owners hold exclusive rights to copy their work and provide copies to others, to perform and/or display the work publicly, and to produce variations of the work. Variations are separate copyrighted entities. Copyright protects the words used to express ideas, not the ideas themselves.
How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?
- Works by a single author – author’s lifetime plus 70 years
- Works by two or more authors working for themselves – 70 years after the death of the last author
- Works created for hire – the lesser of 95 years after publication or 120 years beyond the creation date
Copyright vs. Copyright Registration
Registering a copyright provides legal standing to sue another for infringing your rights. Most countries offer some type of copyright registration; this article covers U.S. law specific to written works.
Owners of registered copyrights may sue infringers for actual monetary losses, the infringer’s profits on their use of the infringed work, statutory damages up to $150,000 and attorney’s fees. Register your copyright within three months of publication to preserve all your rights. Register your copyright within five years of publication to maintain the right to sue for actual damages plus the infringer’s profits.
When and Why to Register A Copyright
Fiction writers generally need not register their works; publishers will obtain a copyright registration on your behalf as part of the publication process. If you write articles, poetry, nonfiction and the like, registering those that are published is generally a good idea.
A Grade of ©
Your unpublished work will not be stolen! While unpublished works can be registered, doing so may make you the target of vanity presses. See this chatty (but slightly dated) article to assuage your fears of theft - http://www.sfwa.org/writing/copyrite.htm. The symbol is legally unnecessary because the legal protections of registration are independent of the symbol. If you mark your submissions, do so inconspicuously and use the format “© Jane Jones, 2005.”
However, for works published only on the Internet include the ©, if only to deter readers who mistakenly believe that the Internet is a copyright-free zone.
How to Register?
Many organizations will register your copyright for a fee, but you can easily do it yourself through the Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). The website is user-friendly and contains extensive FAQs, links, and downloadable application forms.
The basic fee for one registration is $30. To register a completely new, never published work that you wrote individually and not for hire, use Short Form TX. To save time and money and meet the three-month window mentioned above, complete one group application every four months using Form GR/CP.
A completed registration application contains the application form, a check, and a deposit copy (or copies) of the work. The copies are not returned to you. A cover letter listing the contents of your application and providing your contact information is usually a good idea. If your work is published in a magazine or newspaper, official guidelines insist you submit the entire magazine or paper. Include the phrase “please accept the enclosed tearsheets [or photocopies] as part of ongoing special relief from the deposit requirement” in your cover letter to skirt this requirement.
Carefully read the Copyright Office website regarding packaging guidelines and post 9/11/01 mail-screening procedures. The forms can be confusing. A good way to get help: contact a copyright attorney and ask his or her paralegal to assist you. If they charge you at all, the rates will be much cheaper.
Your registration is a stamped copy of your application and may take several weeks or months to arrive. It’s a good idea to keep the registration notice with other important papers such as financial and legal documents.