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Questions about Copyright

Copyright and You—
FAQs about Protecting Creative Work

Copyright 2002; 2011 by Patricia Anderson


What you write is your intellectual property, and like many other kinds of property, it needs to be protected. Both before and after publication, copyright is your primary legal and ethical defense against plagiarism, wrongful reproduction, and other unfair uses of your work.

All new authors should be aware of the basics of copyright, but many are in fact inadequately or incorrectly informed on the subject. Here, then, are answers to some frequently asked questions about copyright and related concerns:

Q: How do I stop theft of my work?
A: The bad news is, if someone is determined to misappropriate your work, you may not even know until long after it happens. The good news is, this doesn't occur nearly as often as, or in the ways that, new authors commonly fear. In the rare event of it happening to you, your copyright will establish your rightful ownership as the original creator of the work in question.

Q: Do I have to apply formally and/or pay to copyright my work?
A: No. Copyright law protects your work as long as it is expressed and stored in tangible and lasting form: for example, written work saved as a file on your computer. Copyright would not apply to a spoken lecture that has not been written down or recorded.

Q: If I do not include a copyright notice in my manuscript, is my work still protected?
A: Yes. Copyright law protects your work with or without inclusion of the notice. But, as a warning against infringement, it is nonetheless a good idea to insert the line: "Copyright © [date] by [Your Name]" on the first or second page of your manuscript.

Q: If someone did plagiarize my work, how do I establish that I wrote it first?
A: Published work always bears a publication and/or copyright date. In the case of unpublished work, authors once used to mail the completed manuscript to themselves, so that the postmark would be proof of date, if the need ever arose. These days, most authors produce their work as a dated computer file (or files). To establish the date of completion, save the first draft in its original form and create new files in which to do subsequent revisions or rewrites.

Q: What if I have a great original idea but have not yet developed it in writing?
A: Ideas cannot be copyrighted. Copyright only applies to their expression in writing or other recognized artistic form. If your idea is that great, then the best thing you can do is to keep quiet about it until you have produced it as a tangible work.

Q: Can someone use my title?
A: Generally speaking, yes they can—titles cannot be copyrighted. But extreme cases of appropriation are likely to result in successful legal action against them. For example, expect to be sued, and to lose, if you were to publish a new civil war romance called "Gone with the Wind."

Q: What is fair use?
A: There is no fixed legal definition and what is fair use can vary dramatically from one instance to another. A general rule of thumb followed by many publishing houses and authors is that 300 words or less of another author's work in prose can be quoted and/or paraphrased in a book, providing that the original source is clearly credited. For lengthier usage and for song lyrics and substantial segments of poetry, permission should be sought. Warning: Do not place total reliance on the 300-word rule of thumb. There can be extenuating circumstances that would place 300 words in the realm of copyright infringement. Err on the side of caution: whenever you can avoid quoting or paraphrasing someone else's work, do so. If you must quote, confine yourself as much as possible to a phrase or brief sentence, and always credit the source.

Q: I submitted a MS to a publisher who rejected it. Six months later, that publisher brought out a similar book. Is this cause for legal action?
A: In all likelihood, no. In most cases, MSS are declined because the level of writing is not up to professional standards, the content is not deemed marketable, or it does not fit the publisher's list. A similar work appearing from the same publisher is likely coincidence and possibly also an indication that your work was rejected because something close to it was already known to be in production at the time you made your submission.

If you have further questions about copyright, try contacting one of the national writers organizations in the U.S. and Canada. Similarly, if you believe that your work has been misappropriated, consult one of these organizations for advice before overreacting and seeking costly legal counsel. Any or all of the Authors Guild (U.S.), the National Writers Union (U.S), and the Writers' Union of Canada will generally offer guidance to nonmembers at little or no cost. For whether long-established household names, rising authors, or obscure beginners, all writers must cooperate to maintain the integrity of copyright—the most fundamental and essential safeguard of our creative output.

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