July 8th, 2016

“Busting” Some Popular Copyright Myths

Susan Spann

Copyright law can be confusing for authors, especially when it comes to issues like when (and whether) to register copyright in a manuscript, and what to do if you use a pseudonym. While authors need to understand the basics of copyright, myths and disinformation abound (especially on the Internet).

Today, let’s take a look at some popular myths (and truths) about copyright in novels and other creative works:

Myth #1: You have to register copyright as soon as you finish your manuscript.

False. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not a legal requirement for copyright ownership. Copyright attaches to “qualifying works*” automatically at the time of their creation.

Copyright registration is intended to protect “published works” – so authors should make sure that their works are registered with the copyright office within 3 months after initial publication.

(*Short stories, novellas, novels, anthologies, poetry, and similar fiction and non-fiction works all generally qualify for copyright protection.)

Myth #2: A book is not “published” for copyright purposes if you give it away for free, or if you self-publish.

False. Under the Copyright Act, “publication” means “the distribution of copies . . . of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”

The Copyright Act does not require that a work be “sold” and does not require any exchange of money (or profits) before the work can be considered “published.” Also, the law does not distinguish between self-published works and those published by a third-party publishing house. Published is published.

Myth #3: Copyright registration offers authors some very real benefits.

True! Copyright registration gives copyright holders some significant benefits under U.S. law. Among them:

  • The right to sue infringers to stop infringement.
  • The right to collect statutory damages (money, in amounts set by law) from infringers.
  • The right to recover attorney fees against an infringer in a successful lawsuit.

Myth #4: If you don’t register the copyright before publication, you can never register at all.

False. To maximize your legal rights in your work, the copyright should be registered within 3 months after the initial publication date. However, authors (or publishers) can register the copyright in a qualifying work at any time.

You may lose some legal rights by filing more than three months after the initial publication date, but others (like the right to sue infringers) can be secured at any time by filing a proper copyright registration

Myth #5: Authors should protect themselves by registering copyright before querying agents or submitting their work to publishers.

False. (Unless the work is already published – which creates a different set of potential problems.) The registration trigger is publication, not queries.

Sometimes authors think they need to register copyright to protect the work from being stolen by unscrupulous agents or publishers. To this, I have one answer: Don’t query unscrupulous agents and publishers. Do your homework and approach only reputable industry professionals. Reputable agents (and publishers) don’t steal authors’ projects. It costs far less (and requires much less risk) to offer a contract.

Myth #6: Traditional publishers always register copyright on the author’s behalf.

False. Many do, but some do not. If you publish traditionally, your contract state, specifically, who will register the copyright. If the language isn’t there, ask for the publisher to add it—and if you don’t know what language to ask for, consult a publishing lawyer.

Myth #7: Registering copyright is difficult, expensive, and requires a lawyer.

False, False, and False. Most copyrights can be registered online at the U.S. Copyright Office website (www.copyright.gov), and registration normally costs less than $50. The website even has a step-by-step registration tutorial that walks authors through the process.

And there you have it…a whirlwind tour of common copyright registration myths and the truths behind them.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled summer fun.

About Susan

Susan SpannSusan Spann writes the Hiro Hattori Novels, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. The fourth book in the series, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, will release from Seventh Street Books in August 2016. Susan is the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing and business law. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. Find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (SusanSpannAuthor).

29 comments to “Busting” Some Popular Copyright Myths

  • Brilliant post, Susan! So many authors don’t understand what a Copyright will, and won’t do. Thanks for debunking it!

  • Thanks, Susan! I’ll be reposting this for my readers and referring my writing clients to it–great info that they REALLY need to know.

    • Thanks for sending your readers over to see it! I appreciate the signal boost! (So you know..it’s actually copyright infringement to re-post an article without the author’s permission, even if you give credit – but posting a sentence or two about it and a link to the original material is both legal and much appreciated!)

      • One clarification on my earlier comment: if you “re-post” using an automated feature on the website that has the original article (for example, a one-button share or re-post feature) then it’s not infringement – because the website is set up to allow it, which is a form of permission!

        (Wanted to make sure I clarified that before people got nervous!)

  • Zan Marie

    Susan, thanks for the quick list of myths and real answers. It needs to be repeated regularly.

  • Great post! I wish I had similar insights about copyrights in Canada. There is another possible myth I would like to see either debunked or validated: if you just add a copyright notice and don’t register the copyright, e.g. in a footnote at the bottom of a document, is it still valid?

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Great copyright info here. Plain. Simple. Straight-forward. I’ve shared generously online. Thanks for this!

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Very helpful post, Susan!

  • I just recently registered my first literary work with the U.S. Copyright office. I did it online and it was quick easy and inexpensive ($39). Now, I plan to register all works with the copyright office.

  • I’m glad you have so much money that you don’t mind laying out a $50 fee to copyright an item that you may never sell. Those of us on fixed incomes, however, are prone to feel differently about the outlay.

    • Deke: I actually don’t advise registering copyright before publication (meaning, before the work is sold or available for sale). If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that I actually advise people not to register the copyright before querying, if seeking traditional publication.

      Best wishes to you with your writing career.

  • bobmeixner

    I failed to find the promised information with respect to writing/publishing under a pseudonym. Did I miss something?

    • OOPS! You’re right Bob – I forgot that myth! Here it is:

      MYTH: You cannot register copyright if you write under a pseudonym.

      FALSE: Authors can register copyrights in works written under a pseudonym, using the author’s real name OR in the pseudonym itself. However, pseudonymous works that are not registered in the author’s real, legal name receive less copyright protection (in the form of a shorter copyright term) than that given to works where the author discloses his or her real name at the time of copyright registration. (Note: copyright registrations are public record, so disclosing your real name when you register does mean people can find it, simply by searching the copyright registry.)

  • This is always an interesting topic to me. I wonder how all of this works within the international copyright agreements. I ask this because I’m in New Zealand where I’m covered the moment my writing is in a tangible format, and no registration is required. However, I have a writing partner in US. For our joint works, we’re not sure if we have to register in both countries to cover our bums. Hmm… I think it’s off to a copyright lawyer we go, just to ask that question.

  • Thanks, Susan.

    The issue I am most concerned about are foreign infringers. If I register my book with the U.S. Copyright office, how does that protect me from “pirates” overseas?

    • Hi Jens. Unfortunately, U.S. registration doesn’t protect you overseas – each country has its own laws and rules for copyright registration and enforcement. (This is one reason why the area is so tricky.) While foreign copyright registration is available for works published in the U.S. (in many countries anyway), enforcement can be difficult, and every country varies.

  • Thank you for always giving giving wonderful information about the legalities.

    Denise

  • Thanks for the info. Quick and easy to understand with a link. Love it.

  • Very interesting. It’s great info to have at hand.

  • I moderate a writing group and am regularly questioned on these points. I’d like to share your thoughts with these wonderful, questioning people so they can sleep soundly at night.

  • […] No matter how you publish, you need to understand copyright. Susan Spann busts some popular copyright myths. […]