Friday, October 17, 2008

Copyright: How to Protect Your Work

Copyright: How to Protect Your Work.

Some where along the way someone started the rumor that by simply writing a piece a writer automatically has the copyright--that US Copyrights are unnecessary to protect your work. I have also heard that the process is very complicated. All three are untrue. Mailing a copy to yourself and leaving it unopened to keep the postal stamp valid is call the poor man's copyright. It is a good temporary way of protecting your work, however it is only temporary. Accidents do happen and once the seal is broken, the protection has been invalidated. The only truly safe way to legal protect your work is to get a US copyright.

First, what is a copyright? It is legal proof of when and who created an original work. Whether it literary, dramatic, musical or artistic it falls under copyright protection. Owning the copyright means you have the legal right of deciding who and when the work may be distributed, copied, or performed publicly. This doesn’t mean if you are singing to the radio or if you loan your copy of a book to someone that you will be sued. However, if you start making copies of a Harry Potter books and selling them as your own, legal representatives of JR Rowlings who will take great issue with you. Any time you represent another’s efforts as your own you are stealing from them and cheating yourself. Everyone has a creative voice--something inside them that only they can share--if you usurp someone else’s creativity, you deny yourself and cheat the world of your special perspective.

However, there are ways to refer to another’s work without violating the copyright. Always make sure you give full credit to the creator of the work. It’s usually best to keep it enclosed within quotes or only used as a reference. But footnotes are also acceptable as long as they are clearly marked and easily accessible. In one article, I compared the lyrics of a song to the spiritual journey of a generation. I immediately opened the piece by giving credit to the author. Not only did it protect me, but it gave the reader a reference point. Quotes need the proper punctuation as well as the source information. To do other would only reflect badly on you.

I don't know who started it and really don't care. The fact is that writing a piece guarantees you nothing. It can be fun. It can be healing. It can be exciting. However, putting ink to paper doesn’t give you any legal standing. Even if your work is read by others before it is sent out, doesn’t mean it will not be challenged. On the opposite site, it doesn’t mean it will be either. What it does mean is that you aren’t protected. As of September 2006, it cost 45.00 to register a literary piece. If you are the sole author and the piece hasn't been previously copyrighted you can use Short Form TX. It is a single sheet that will probably take you longer to print up than to fill out. If there are multiple authors or other copyrights involved you will need to use Form TX. It is a longer form, but just as simple to fill out. The US Copyright site address is

For smaller pieces, such as short stories or articles, I don’t individually copyright; instead, I tack them on to larger pieces and make a notation on the application. However, when you get over ten thousands words you are approaching a novella and that can be worth it to spend the money for an official copyright. Most smaller pieces are written to be published either online or in a magazine format. Once they are published, you have some protection. The publication date is evidence of your claim of ownership, but it is not proof. However, most smaller works are safe. The cost to fight for them is usually greater than they are worth. In addition, once you have a track record, your style will help protect you from someone else claiming your work. Everyone has their own voice, which is very difficult to imitate. Word usage and sentence structure are individual; it what makes every writer unique.

Before sending out any larger than a novella, I send out the paperwork and wait two weeks. Once the paper work reaches the Copyright offices, it is valid; however, receiving the paperwork can take up to four months. If you send it certified return receipt, the returned postcard can temporarily valid your claim of copyright. In this way, I can start approaching publishers, agents or movie producers and honestly say I have a copyright on the piece. In another place, I will describe the dark side of publishing; not everyone in the business is ethical or honest. By protecting my work ahead of time, I insure it will be protected from the beginning. In addition, there are some places that will not even look at work without proof of copyright. People in the film industry have been burned so many times that it is necessary to either have a US Copyright or to have the work registered with the Writers Guild.

Another way to protect your work is to register it with the Writers Guild. There are offices on both the east and west coasts of the United States. As far as I know, the Guild registration only offers protection in the USA. However, the length of the protection is shorter than a US Copyright. The Guild registration is valid for five years and can be renewed for an additional fee. As of September
2006, the fee is 20.00 for non-members and 10.00 for members. They also offer the option of filing online, which is quicker than a US Copyright and offers just as much protection. Their site address is

There are some writers who register their work with both. With screenplays and stage plays that is a good idea. The Guild is part of the industries, which makes your work more accessible. The US Copyright gives it additional protection for a longer span of time. Either path is acceptable. But to send out a large project, without protection, is just playing Russian Roulette with you hard work.

For more writing, publishing and promotional tips, please buy my ebook From Blank Page to Book Shelves. It is available on my site at or through the Amazon Kindle program at

No comments: