Today, AuthorHouse would like to talk about something that’s not exactly near and dear to most self-publishing authors’ hearts: copyrights. After all, this isn’t character development, story structure, or even book signing tips; this is the legal stuff, the information you hope you never need to know.
How do you copyright your book? Do you publish before you copyright your book, or after? Is it necessary to apply for a copyright? Why do I even care about this stuff? After all, I’m a writer, not an attorney.
But copyright information is like your cholesterol count–you might not want to know it, but it’s probably better if you do. In that spirit, we’d like to present five tips and facts about copyrights. Let’s begin with perhaps the most important:
When in doubt, talk to a lawyer. This is the tip that takes precedence over all the others. If you’re not sure, talk to an expert on copyright law. Should you ever end up in court, quoting this article, something you read in an interview, or a legal fact you heard from your uncle isn’t going to give you much traction. It’s okay to do some research on your own, but if you need definitive information make sure you talk to a lawyer, and make sure copyright law is his or her specialty.
You actually don’t have to register your work to be protected by copyright law. If your country is a signatory to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (most countries are, the U.S. included) your work is protected as soon as you create it, as long as it’s in a form that’s “perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” In other words, if you typed it or wrote it down, it’s protected.
The US government doesn’t issue or approve copyrights and you don’t have to apply for one. Having said that…
You can’t copyright an idea. So we’re eating dinner together, and you tell me your great book idea about a theme park with dinosaurs reconstructed from frog DNA. Tonight I go home and write Jurassic Park. Can you sue me? Yes. Will you win? No. Although you had an idea, you didn’t put it into a perceptible form, visible directly or with a device.
You need to fix the date of your copyright. So if you’re protected automatically, why bother registering your work (with the Library of Congress, for example)? Because if someone does steal your story and the matter goes to court, it’s important to establish who’s work was first. In the absence of such registration, other evidence (such as witness testimonies) can be presented; however, it’s likely the other side will find witnesses too, so a registration is always a much better friend to have in your corner.
What about a “poor man’s copyright?” You’ve probably heard about this one before: just wrap up a copy of your book and mail it to yourself (don’t open it when you receive it). The date on the package, stamped by the post office, will unofficially “register” your work, right?
Unfortunately, no. There’s no provision in U.S. law for such a thing, and it’s never actually been tested in court. And it’s rather easy to fake, if you think about it; the post office won’t stop you from mailing an empty envelope to yourself. If you’re going to the trouble of wrapping up your book and mailing it anyway, why not just get it registered?
That’s all for today… that wasn’t so bad, was it? Just remember our first tip: consult a lawyer if you have any questions!
Check back at Author’s Digest regularly for more writing, editing, and marketing tips! Until then, may today’s word count always be higher than yesterday’s!