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What About Copyrighting my Book?

Welcome to your introduction to intellectual property law. Here goes:

Ideas can’t be copyrighted. It’s the expression of the idea that’s covered. If you have a great idea, and you tell it to the guy sitting at the table next to you and he uses it to write a bestselling book, there’s nothing you can do about it.

So keep your lips closed until you’ve got something down on paper.

You are covered under copyright law as soon as you write something in a form that allows it to be retrieved or communicated. You don’t have to register it, and you don’t have to use the copyright symbol on the document to be covered under copyright law. You may wish to register your copyright, and you may wish to add the copyright notice to your work to remind others that it’s copyrighted, but it’s not necessary. As soon as you’ve put something original down on paper or saved it on a computer, it’s copyrighted and you’re covered. Remember, always backup your files. You may have completed the manuscript without printing and have a hard drive crash. Your material is lost as well as copyright.

You should always keep your copyright, except in certain very specific cases. Those cases include assignation (be careful!) or a work for hire (be careful!). You’re going to have to keep reading if you want definitions of assignation and work for hire.

You may license your copyright for money. Possible licenses include book or eBook publication and optioning of the movie rights.

Copyright lasts for the length of the author’s life plus seventy years. If you’re writing your book right now under your own name, the copyright will last seventy years after your death. Like any other asset, your copyright can be left to your heirs, and they will have all the rights to license rights or continue to gather income from licensed rights as the original copyholder.

If work is anonymous, pseudonymous, or done as a work for hire, copyright lasts for 95 years after publication or 120 years after creation, whichever is sooner.

Copyright infringement is a federal crime. The only way to make sure you’re not infringing on other people’s copyright is to get permission to use their work. If your copyright is being infringed for profit, you may bring a civil lawsuit against the infringer, and the government may pursue criminal charges.

And that’s really all a working author needs to know about copyright.

I If you need more information, the Copyright Public Information Office is a terrific resource for questions about copyright issues. Their number is (202) 707-3000. The Copyright Office also has a very informative website:

The Copyright Office isn’t allowed to give legal advice, so if you’re still unclear or have legal questions, you should get in touch with a lawyer. Copyright is governed by federal law, and you should ascertain that your lawyer is comfortable with copyright law, intellectual property issues, and publishing law in general.
Registration and Notice

If your copyright is protected as soon as it is created in a fixed and retrievable form, why register with the Copyright Office at all?

Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. You may wish to have your copyright be a matter of public record. If you’re going to sue for infringement, the copyright must have been registered either within three months of publication or before the infringement began; otherwise, you severely limit the damages and reimbursement for legal fees you can collect if the litigation is successful.

If the work is registered within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. In other words, the burden of proof is on the infringer. And registration allows you to register the work with the U.S. Customs Service to prevent the importation of the work in the case of infringement.

That said, this is most important to creators of unpublished or self-published work. All the major trade publishing houses automatically register the copyright in the name of the author, and you will probably not have to worry about it at all. You might want to consider adding a line to your contract to make sure they do it, though.

The Library of Congress also requests that two copies of every published work be deposited with them within three months of publication. If your book is self-published, you must do this yourself. The copies you will send with your copyright registration request satisfy this requirement. Again, if you’re published by a major mainstream publishing house, this will be done for you.

Since works must be registered separately, it can be fairly expensive to register all of your work if you’re prolific and unpublished. You might consider “collecting” all of your unpublished works under a single title, to save yourself some fees.

Registration may be made at any time within the life of the copyright. Under the new law, when a work has been registered in unpublished form, it is not necessary to register it again upon publication, although you may choose to do so. Your publisher will probably do it automatically anyway.

To register a work, you will have to obtain the correct forms from the Copyright Office.

To obtain forms, call (202) 707-9100 (TTY is (202) 707-6737), visit their website, or drop by the Copyright Office, which is located at 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C., in the James Madison Memorial Building, Room LM-401, of the Library of Congress. Hours of service are 8:30 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. eastern time, Monday through Friday, except federal holidays. When you have received and filled out the forms correctly, you must send them to the Copyright Office with a check or money order for $30 (amount effective through June 30, 2002) and two copies of the work that you’d like registered. ALL MATERIAL MUST BE SENT IN THE SAME PACKAGE. Otherwise, it will not be processed.

The package should be sent to: Library of Congress Copyright Office Register of Copyrights 101 Independence Avenue, S.E. Washington, DC 20559-6000
The check or money order must be from a United States bank or institution, and the fee is nonrefundable, even if the request is denied. The Copyright Office cannot accept work sent on diskette, although they will accept a CD-ROM if software and accompanying documentation (the manual) accompanies the package. You’re probably better off sending hardcopies. If you are unable to locate two copies of the book, or if it will cause you financial hardship to send two copies, the office may be able to make some provision for you, so call the Public Service Line.

Caution: It’s a lengthy process. The Copyright Office’s website warns applicants that it may take up to eight months for the certificate or the notice of denial to arrive. Fortunately, work is considered registered as soon as the Copyright Office receives a package in an acceptable form. We suggest that you send your package by registered or certified mail, and request notice of receipt, so you have proof that it has been sent and received. If you start panicking before the eight months is up, you can ask that the office performs an in-process search, which costs $65. You can also pay $350 for the privilege of an expedited claim review, but you have to prove that you have a good reason for requesting this service, and your package must be sent to a special address.

If you lose your certificate, you may ask for an additional copy to be mailed to you for $25.

You do not need to register your copyright with the Copyright Office to use a copyright notice, and a notice can increase your protection when your work is out of your direct control. A copyright notice is an identifying mark placed on copies of the work to denote copyright ownership. Most commonly, this is the symbol ©. It can also be noted with the word “Copyright” or with the abbreviation “copr.”

Under the law of 1909, if the work was published without a proper copyright notice, it was not covered under copyright law. This was also true under the Act of 1976. The law has since been modified, and while it is strongly recommended that all copyrighted works bear a copyright notice, works published after March 1, 1989, are covered whether they do or not. Works published between 1976 and 1989 without a copyright notice are in a strange position. The copyright is not immediately invalidated if the error occurred on a small number of the published copies, or if the author specifically requested copyright notice. If neither condition was true, the work is only covered if copyright registration was filed within five years after first publication and if reasonable efforts were used to rectify the mistake and to get copyright notice into subsequent copies.

To recap: Copyright notice does not have to appear on a work created after 1978 in order for it to be protected under copyright law, but it is strongly recommended that you or your publisher include a notice.

Flip to the front matter of any book. The copyright notation there should look something like this:

Copyright © 2000 by Oscar T. Grouch

If the work is a derivative work, the copyright notice will read:

Copyright © 1973, 2000 by Oscar T. Grouch

This is how we know that substantial creative changes have been made to the work, and that the edition we’re looking at is a derivative work. This could mean that a new chapter has been added, or that a substantial update has been made—something more, in other words, than correcting typos or making design changes. If substantial changes are made to a work, a new copyright claim may be filed.
On an unpublished work, the copyright notice should read: Unpublished work copyright © 2000 by Oscar T. Grouch


If you have a manuscript and want it published, feel free to call
Lee Fredrickson at

(417) 889-4803

(or e-mail

For mail:

21 st Century Press
2131 W. Republic Rd PMB 211
Springfield, MO 65807

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