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).

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