Understanding the basics of Copyright

imagesLike any other system of laws or regulations, “copyright” is a nebulous, often confusing structure for even the most well-informed legal minds. Now that the internet’s made it harder to track the origins of certain intellectual properties, it can be difficult to know your rights as a creator and feel protected. That’s why today we’ll be discussing some of the most basic aspects of copyright that you’ll need to know in order to self-publish your work.

Note: Because BookWorks is based in the United States, most of this information is only applicable to US copyright law. Every country’s copyright structure is a little different, so some of the specifics of this advice might not apply everywhere.

You don’t need a formal license to have copyright

Under the 1976 Copyright act, you don’t need a formal license to consider your work copyrighted. The second you create and record it — regardless of whether you use word processors or pens — copyright is yours. And you’ll continue to have copyright protection for your entire life, plus 70 years after your death (though probably more if you put your work out soon — the laws tend to get changed to lengthen the time of copyright whenever Mickey Mouse or any other Disney property gets close to becoming Public Domain). Copyright is also transferable as any property is — you can sell it, give it to someone, or even bequeath it in a will.

However, there are some things you can’t copyright; titles, names, ideas, and slogans. So if you want to name a character in your book after another character whose name was invented specifically for them — Daenerys Targaryen from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, for example, or even Wendy from Peter Pan* — you’re not breaking any copyright laws by doing so. You might be breaking trademark laws, however, but that’s a different matter altogether.

You don’t need a notice of copyright on your website or in your book in order to have copyright on your work. However, you should use it, if only to remind would-be thieves that you know your rights. Here’s what copyright notices usually look like:

© [Year of first publication] [name of author]

So if I were to copyright this blog post, I would put a notice at the bottom saying:

© 2013 Victoria McNally

You can also choose to register a copyright if you plan on filing a copyright infringement suit, as you cannot sue without the license. If you do find yourself in a position where you need to sue, you’ll probably by talking to a lawyer anyway, and they’ll be able to help you set up the copyright claim.
*That’s right, “Wendy” was not a girl’s name before J.M. Barrie used it in his book!

Know how to invoke Fair Use

“Fair Use” is a term that gets thrown around a lot in copyright lawsuits, particularly when it comes to the internet. Simply put, it’s a doctrine that permits the limited use of copyrighted material without getting permission from the rights holder. Generally speaking, your quote can only be about 250 words to qualify as Fair Use (some say 350, but it’s probably better to stay under 250 just in case.).

These are all examples of where Fair Use comes into play:

  • News reporting
  • Commentary and criticism
  • Research
  • Teaching
  • Parody (note that courts are usually more wiling to grant fair use protection to parodies, which are works that make fun of an existing work, than to satire, which are works that use an existing work to make fun of something else)
  • Search engines

Let’s say that you want to write an article wherein you critique a popular book, and you quote text from that book. This would be an example of fair use.

However, let’s say you want to write a book where you quote lines from your character’s favorite book. You might have a harder time arguing fair use for that, so it’s probably best to A: make sure you get permission from the copyright holder before you publish or B: change your character’s favorite book to something that’s in the Public Domain so you don’t have to worry about it, or C: shorten the length of the text that you quote, as John Green had to do when he quoted Edna St. Vincent Millay in his book Looking For Alaska.

Obviously Fair Use is a very complicated doctrine that often gets mishandled or misunderstood by those who invoke it when infringing on others copyrights. The easiest way to play it safe, of course, is to make sure your self published work doesn’t contain any work by anyone else, public domain or not. Once you become successful enough to afford licenses to use other people’s copywrited material, then you can start quoting more recent authors in your own work.

Make sure you know your rights online

Anyone with a Facebook account probably saw this little gem floating around at least once on their feed:

In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details, illustrations, graphics, comics, paintings, photos and videos, etc. (as a result of the Berner Convention). For commercial use of the above my written consent is needed at all times!

You also probably know that the above text doesn’t actually do anything. When you sign up for and use a Facebook account, you are essentially giving Facebook the right to “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.” As Webpronews puts it, “Nothing you say as a Facebook status can affect Facebook’s current policies.”

What does this mean? It means that if you’re going to post your writing on a website or blog, make absolutely sure that you know the website’s terms of service guidelines. This goes for Print on Demand service providers as well as hobby websites such as Fanfiction.net and Deviantart. Yes, we’ve all clicked past plenty of TOS agreements without reading them, but where your work is concerned, you need to scour every word. Some POD sites actually require you to give up your copyright to them, so don’t assume that because the site’s helping you get published, it has your best interests at heart.

That’s all for our how-to article on copyright — if you have any first-hand experience with Intellectual Property that you’d like to share, let us know in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Understanding the basics of Copyright

  1. Hello.
    This is interesting topic, especially I’m new here for the blog. I would be grateful if you give me some tips.

    – I’m wondering If I want to write how ketchup tastes good, and then I have mentioned Heinz Ketchup with one line quotation and how they produce their ketchup..
    Am I getting into trouble doing that?

    – What about saying some description in beginning to introduce my topic? (e.g some 200 words quotation of some good author) then I talk about it for like 50-100 words? am I getting in trouble this way?

    – and finally, what about images and videos ? can I put them? or are they more complicated than words?

    Thank you,

    • Hi! Hopefully I can answer some of your questions, though I’m not a copyright expert. First I’m wondering — what publishing medium are you most curious about? If all you’re worried about is blogging then most (but not all!) copyright holders are a little more lenient with copyright and only request that you properly source and cite the information or images/video you feature.

      Where you might get into trouble, however, is when you use copyrighted material in text that you’re trying to digitally self-publish as an e-book or traditional print book.

      I’m also a little confused as to what type of scenario you’re describing — non-fiction? Fiction? Obviously it’s going to be a little easier to justify using copyrighted material in non-fiction materials such as journalistic writing.

      As for the ketchup thing, you can name-drop brands in your writing without it being a copyright issue. It might be a trademark issue, however, and if you say something disparaging against the company, they might take umbrage with that if they notice and if you’re a popular enough writer.

      Let me know if there’s anything else I can clear up, and thanks for reading!

      • Hello,
        Thanks for the reply

        I’m actually concerned about writing in blogs here and who knows make money out of adverts in future?

        and to elaborate my view:

        – I write about marketing topics where sometimes I want to mention companies as examples whether to criticize their services or even complement them, and even make comparisons.

        – I also am interested in researches from surveys that are used online or by academics to justify my argument.

        – About images, and videos I was not sure how to reference them. Shall I just put the link I got the picture or video from then I’m able to analyse and talk about it?

        so basically the main issue that I’m struggling with is I’m not sure which content I can use and which I can’t, and not sure about videos and images referencing.

        Thanks for the explanation again :D

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