A Little Lesson on Copyright

I just saw someone who should know better ask if a work becomes public domain (i.e., available for anyone to publish and make money from) if an author markets that work without registering the copyright with the copyright office.

NO.

I put that in large, bolded letters because that comment was horrifying to me. That’s the kind of comment that leads to an author stealing another author’s work and not understanding what they’ve just done.

So let’s talk copyright real quick.

First, at least in the U.S., the official source of information on this is the U.S. Copyright Office. Here’s a nice FAQ they have available. If you are a creator of any sort of artistic work, read it. If you intend to sell any sort of artistic work, read it. If you want to share someone else’s artistic work, read it.

So, let’s summarize a few of the answers available on that site:

  • A work is under copyright protection as soon as it is “fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”
  • Copyright covers “original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”
  • Copyright registration is voluntary. A work is protected whether you register the copyright or not.
  • You don’t even need to use a copyright notice on your work to have copyright protection.
  • But if you want to bring a suit for copyright infringement, you do need to register your copyright.
  • Depending on when you register a work you may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees if someone infringes your copyright.
  • The U.S. has reciprocal relationships with a number of countries to honor one another’s copyright registrations, but that is not universal. There are many countries who do not acknowledge copyright protection.
  • If someone reproduces, distributes, performs, publicly displays, or makes a derivative work of someone else’s copyrighted material without permission, that is considered an infringement of the original author’s copyright.
  • There is a fair use exception to copyright infringement. It is “permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports.” (However, be very careful with song lyrics. There is no number of words that are deemed safe. It’s based on context.)
  • Works do eventually fall out of copyright and into what is called public domain. When a work is in the public domain others can publish it or write derivative works based on it. A work published today would be under copyright protection for at least 70 years and likely longer than that.
  • If you want to protect a name, title, slogan, etc. that does not fall under copyright, but may fall under trademark protection.
  • When you register a copyright that registration information is publicly available. You also have to submit a copy of the “best” version of the item that is available at the time.
  • If someone infringes your copyright you can file a civil suit against them. Also, “in cases of willful infringement for profit, the U.S. Attorney may initiate a criminal investigation.”
  • “Uploading or downloading works protected by copyright without the authority of the copyright owner is an infringement of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights of reproduction and/or distribution. Anyone found to have infringed a copyrighted work may be liable for statutory damages up to $30,000 for each work infringed and, if willful infringement is proven by the copyright owner, that amount may be increased up to $150,000 for each work infringed. “

In summary. Don’t mess with another person’s creative work. With respect to writing, that means don’t copy someone’s blog, don’t take sentences they’ve written and use them in your own work as a “homage” if you don’t have permission, don’t steal their book and publish it as your own, and don’t download books off some sketchy site where someone is “sharing” their version of a book. All of that is a big no-no.

Just because someone doesn’t choose to go through the time and expense to officially register their work does not let you off the hook.

Same goes for photos you find on the internet. If you didn’t take the photo or arrange to license the photo for your own use, not yours to use.

If you’re a writer, read through that FAQ I linked to above. And if you really want to dig in buy The Copyright Handbook from NOLO.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres.

5 thoughts on “A Little Lesson on Copyright”

  1. In addition to copyright, it’s important to be aware of moral rights, such as the right to be identified as the creator of a work or to object to certain uses, which exist separately from copyright so might restrict what one can do with a work even if copyright isn’t an obstacle for some reason.

    With song lyrics, the best approach is usually to use the song title rather than an extract from the lyrics (i.e. “she sang ‘Yellow Submarine'”, rather than “she sang, ‘We all live…'”). Song titles aren’t covered by copyright, so you don’t risk exceeding the nebulous limit on quoting words. And using the title is just as likely to evoke the feeling in people familiar with the song and more likely to allow those who aren’t to look it up (thus experiencing the song as a whole rather than merely words on a page), so increases the chances readers will feel the emotions you’ve put the song there to evoke.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent write-up!

    If you’re up for tackling the subject, I’d love to see a similar post on plagiarism.

    Recently, I read this post from another blog: https://litrpgreviews.blog/2018/11/26/when-yes-you-plagiarized/

    I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that the author of the post was completely correct. I get that, if an author steals exact sentences from another author, that’s plagiarism. I was less clear about stealing “ideas.”

    The author of the post contends that copying a sequence of events constitutes plagiarism. I wasn’t quite sure if I agreed with him, and wondered about your thoughts on the subject.

    (Just to be clear, I have never copied a sequence of events from another author’s work. This question is more from a standpoint of intellectual curiosity than anything else.)

    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting question. I’ll have to dig into it some because I think you’re technically correct that it’s the words that are protected not the ideas, but I do know there’ve been some pretty ugly plagiarism allegations over the years for similar ideas. At least one I know went to court, but I’m not sure what the actual legal charge was on that one. I want to say it might not have been a plagiarism charge, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. One of the things I learned in recent years is that the value of actually registering your product is that it ‘serves as notice to the world’ (or at least the U.S.) and that is why it’s necessary if you wish to bring civil suit against someone. Otherwise, it’s difficult to prove that they actually stole it, rather than ‘happen to come up with the same thing without knowledge of your original work.’ If memory serves, there was a recent court case along these lines where the original creator never registered their work, and the judge ended up either dismissing the case or ruling in favor of the defendant rather than the original creator.

    Liked by 1 person

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