Copyright for Writers: Protecting Your Work

Whether it’s a short poem, an essay, or a book-length manuscript, each piece of content you produce belongs to you. For many artists, the work they produce is a labor of love that they want to share with the world, but at the same time, they want it to be protected from theft and unfair use. This is where a basic understanding of copyright law is helpful for aspiring writers. As an artist, it’s important to understand copyright law and the legal protection that it gives your work.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal ownership of intellectual property where the copyright holder or owner, usually but not always the creator, has a certain degree of control over reproduction and distribution of the work. The author is the creator and original copyright holder. The exception here is work for hire, where the content in question was produced as a result of employment. In that case, the employer typically owns the copyright. Other works besides print publications can be copyrighted as well, such as films, paintings, photographs, choreography, music, and more. The copyright holder is then allowed to publish their work, reproduce it in a form of their choosing, distribute it, and publicly display or perform the work. They are also free to make adaptations, revisions, or sequels to the content in question. Copyright is intended to protect original works only. The work itself must be “fixed:” that is, it must be written or recorded in some tangible format. Books, magazines, films, newspaper articles, music albums, plays, and more can all be counted as fixed formats.

Copyright protection automatically applies the moment the work itself is created. For writers, whenever you sit down to write that original article, essay, short story, or poem, you also instantly have the copyright for it. Many writers will apply a © symbol along with the word “Copyright” and the year of publication. For example, the copyright notice on an original essay might read, “Copyright © J. Smith 2023.” Some also include an email address or other contact information. Although this step is not necessary, many writers do so for legitimacy and to provide a point of contact if anyone wishes to borrow from their work. You can also take the additional step of registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office so there is a written public document that can support a legal argument if your work is plagiarized. This involves filling out a form and paying a fee. The copyright will typically last until 70 years after the author’s death; in the case of work for hire, the copyright expires 120 years from creation.

A copyrighted work can also be either published or unpublished. Publication is defined as the copyright owner having distributed multiple copies of the work for the purposes of profit, performance, or display. A public performance is not typically considered publication. For instance, an author quoting from a book that hasn’t yet been printed would be quoting from unpublished but copyrighted material. Authors and copyright holders can also issue something called a limited publication, where a small quantity of the content is produced but not released to the wider public; this may keep it technically unpublished. It’s such a confusing legal issue that the U.S. Copyright Office has admitted that the determination between published and unpublished is still somewhat undefined in the eyes of the law. You may want to speak to a lawyer if you are planning on doing a limited publication.

What Is Fair Use?

Although your work may be copyrighted, others may reference, borrow from, or parody your work in certain manners that do not violate the copyright. This is called fair use. The critical word in the fair use terminology is “transformative”: The user must build upon or change the source material to create something new. Since this word is open to legal interpretation, there is no agreed-upon rule for fair use of copyrighted work. Parody in most forms is protected in the United States under free speech rulings. Quoting sections of text in essays, articles, and reviews is allowed as long as the work is cited properly. But others have tried to borrow larger portions of copyrighted works under the guise of fair use and found themselves needing a lawyer.

Public Domain

Some published works have been around long enough that the copyright has expired, and others have been freely released by their creators for anyone to use. Such works are considered to be in the public domain. It is completely legal to republish, adapt, or tinker with public domain books from hundreds of years ago. Some websites exist solely to provide free-to-use content for anyone who needs it. Many books that were written prior to the 20th century have lapsed copyrights and exist in the public domain, allowing anyone to publish them or adapt them.

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