“I copyrighted my book by putting © on the bottom of the first page.”
“This picture is on the Internet, so I can just ‘right-click’ and use it on my website.”
“I copyrighted this DVD by mailing it to myself.”
“We don’t have any copyrights because we never registered anything with the government.”
Have you ever said or heard any of these things? If so, you are in good company—most people have. But they are all incorrect.
The belief that “copyright” is a verb besets and befuddles almost every author. Should a writer “copyright” an unpublished work before submitting it to an agent or publisher? If a writer does not formally “copyright” their unpublished work and finds someone copying it or giving away free copies, how are they disadvantaged, if at all? How does a writer “copyright” her work?
To a copyright purist like me, “copyright” is not a verb. It is a noun. Technically, a copyright is an incorporeal property right that springs into existence when a sufficiently creative idea is reduced into or onto a tangible medium. It’s actually like magic, like the Big Bang when the universe sprang into existence from a sea of quantum probability. When someone writes words on a page or draws a picture or sculpts clay or trips the shutter on a camera, the human being doing the writing, drawing, sculpting or tripping has created and is the owner of a copyright (a noun!) in the resulting work—assuming the resulting work possesses the requisite creativity. Done deal—no ©, no government filing, no mailing to oneself needed to create a copyright.
So, assume you have written a book. If it is creative and is not a blatant rip-off of someone else’s work, it is likely you own the copyright in and to said book (there are some major exceptions to that general rule regarding copyright ownership, all of which are beyond the scope of this initial blog post). If you sell a hard copy of that book, you are only transferring ownership of the paper, the ink and the binding. The incorporeal copyright remains with you on those facts because a copyright exists apart from the medium on or in which the work is tangibly embodied. Said another way, when you sell a copy of a work you authored, you do not at the same time sell away your copyright in the underlying work. They are different concepts: the medium, and the copyright—a distinct intangible property right—the author possesses in the work contained within or on that medium.
If someone copies your book, or large portions of your book, without your permission, that is likely an act of copyright infringement, since the owner of the copyright in a work is the only one who may lawfully make or distribute copies of that work. But in the United States, for the owner of a copyright to have the ability to file and maintain a lawsuit in federal court for copyright infringement, the owner of the copyright must have registered the copyright at issue. This act of registering one’s copyright is accomplished by filing a registration application with, and paying a fee to, the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress.
So, should a writer “copyright” an unpublished work before submitting it? Or, said from the copyright purist’s perspective, should the author of a work file an application to register her copyright in that work with the Copyright Office before submitting it to an agent, a publisher or some other third party? The answer depends on whether the author wishes to have a remedy to enforce her copyrights through a copyright infringement lawsuit in the event her work is copied or distributed unlawfully and her copyright is thus infringed.
This is the key issue every author must address when deciding if registration of her copyright in a work is warranted: is the availability of a remedy for copyright infringement important? Will the author of the work be aggrieved is someone uses her work without her permission? If so, then registration is important. In general, however, agents and publishers will not knowingly infringe a copyright in a submitted work. To do so would be anathema to their reputation and their business, and so most authors should not be overly anxious about making routine, industry-related submissions of their works without registering their copyrights beforehand.
There is one very important “gotcha” that can arise from not timely registering one’s copyrights. In the United States, if you do not register your copyright in a work within three months of the date of first publication of that work, you will not be able to recover either your attorney’s fees or a special category of money called “statutory damages” in a subsequent copyright infringement lawsuit—even if you win. “Publication” for purposes of copyright law is defined differently than the common understanding associated with being a “published author.” Under copyright law, “publication” is very loosely defined as “giving or selling a copy of the work to a third person,” so remember that to have your full panoply of rights available if you do file a copyright infringement lawsuit, you must register your copyright. And if possible, register within three months of the date of first publication, as defined.
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.
About Bradlee Frazer
ITW Member Bradlee Frazer’s debut novel The Cure: A Thriller is available through links on his publisher’s website. And yes, he has registered his copyright in the book.
This article originally appeared here on Jane Friedman’s blog.