An oft misunderstood concept within the world of creative writing, let’s talk about:
It might seem strange to begin a blog focused on the creative and logistical processes of novel writing with a “boring” topic like copyright, but I think it’s a topic that we must emphasize from the start.
When you begin writing your story, it’s your story. No one can take it from you. And guess what? US law protects you!
Hold on for a second, because I’m about to get a bit nerdy with the legal jargon. I’m condensing a lot of information provided by the Chicago Manual of Style and its breakdown of copyright law (by the way, every editor and author should own a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style).
17 U.S.C. § 102 states:
Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.
So good news! The moment you start writing your novel, even on a Microsoft Word document, you own that work. No exceptions. Why?
Copyright . . . subsists . . . in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression. The key words are “tangible medium of expression.” The rest of the law emphasizes the breadth of “tangible expression,” clarifying that it means any form of technology that allows for the creation of “original works of authorship.”
So what are “original works of authorship?”
The rest of 17 U.S.C. § 102 tells us!
(1) literary works;
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.
So any type of writing you might put on the page, it’s yours. Yet you don’t own ideas or concepts within your writing. Otherwise, the Tolkien estate would make millions every time someone places an orc inside a story.
Unfortunately, I’m sure you’re all anticipating the big “BUT” that’s coming. If US law so definitively protects your writing from the first moment it’s placed on the page, why do people worry about copyright?
Four Complications with Copyright
Rights of the Copyright Owner
You the author own your work, and you have what’s known as a “bundle of rights.” Pretty much, there are a bunch of useful things you can do because you own your story, but rights aren’t unlimited, and we’ll explore these various rights in future blogs. For now, know that this “bundle” of rights is what you contract away to publishing houses, Amazon, and other individuals. That’s why you must read every contract carefully!
Works Made For Hire
If you’re working for an employer, and they task you with writing something, you do not own the copyright to that piece of work. Your employer does.
Technically, you don’t need a Copyright Notice under US Law for any work published after March 1, 1989. However, The Chicago Manual of Style encourages all authors and publishers to include one anyway. Including a Copyright Notice with your story ensures any person who attempts to infringe your copyright can’t feign “ignorance.”
You’ve all seen a Copyright Notice before, but here’s its simplest form:
© [Year of Publication], [Name of Copyright Owner], [All rights reserved]
“All rights reserved” is technically optional, but most publishers include it anyway.
Registration with the Library of Congress
When you publish your book in print form, you must send two copies to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This rule also applies to books published outside the US but distributed within the country. Registration ensures you can sue if someone infringes your copyright. Don’t think that lawsuits are your only response to copyright infringement, though. You can demand licensing, for instance, or send a “cease and desist” letter.
But if you register, you can obtain “statutory” damages from someone who infringes your copyright. That risk alone should scare someone away from stealing your work. Easily register your published work at https://www.copyright.gov/registration/.
Hopefully I’ve cleared up some misconceptions regarding copyright as it pertains to your novels. It’s fitting we begin with this topic, for it’s important that every writer know they own their work from the moment they put words on the page. But if you have any questions, drop a comment below!
Disclaimer: this blog does not constitute official legal advice or representation. If you have a concern regarding potential copyright infringement, you should consult your attorney.