Do I Need a Copyright?

This is a question most writers ask, whether for a short story, a poem, screen play, blog or novel. What if someone tries to use as their own the product you have just poured your skill, heart and soul into? Do you need copyright protection?

At a recent Writers by the Sea meeting in Fernandina Beach, visual artist and attorney Deborah Reid provided an overview of things writers commonly need to know about copyright. From the moment you create the work, it is your intellectual property, she said. You own it. Should someone try to claim it, you have rights. Infringement on copyright is the same as theft.

If you need to take legal measures, however, you will have extra protection if you have gone through the registration process via the U.S. Copyright Office, part of the Library of Congress. You can do it online, but Reid warns there are many copycats out there who will gladly take your money for nothing in return. Be sure you are on the right website, ending in “dot gov” as in https://www.copyright.gov. Use form TX for written works. Your date of registration is the date you register, but your submission also will include the date of creation for the work.

Copyright for your work continues for your lifetime plus 75 years, and then the work becomes available in the public domain. U.S. Government documents are almost always public domain, because they are created using tax dollars. For most other items, anything created prior to 1923 is in public domain and free to use. However, be sure to do your homework before using artwork, photography or other items, particularly on commercial items, those things you are intending to sell.

Joint projects. If you have two or more contributors to a project, there would be joint ownership of copyright. In other words, you can do whatever you want to with the work, but so can the other owners. If you want more control over who can do what with the work and under what circumstances, and who gets paid, etc., each person will need to sign a written agreement in advance of the copyright date.

A compilation, such as a poetry anthology, requires the publisher of the work to secure a license from each person who contributes a copyrightable work. Each story or poem would be considered a distinct original creation.

Works for hire relates to a person who contributes work that is within the defined scope of his or her employment. The person is paid for his/her time, but the business owns copyright. Still, you should get a signed agreement, and those employees have an “assignment” to do for your project that you copyright.

A few more notes of interest:

You can’t copyright

  • Titles, slogans or mottos; these must be registered as trademarks
  • Methods, procedures, systems (patent)
  • Utilitarian objects like a chair, or clothing
  • Plots, themes
  • Public domain items (works created prior to 1923)
  • Fonts, facts

 

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Story With the inFRINGEment on Top?

Story With the inFRINGEment on Top?

Sorry. Couldn’t resist the awful pun. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with classic musical theatre — we’ll let you stay. And this title refers to the song Surrey with the Fringe on top from Oklahoma.) But we digress.

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In Do I Need a Copyright? we talked about some of the basic definitions. In this post, we take a look at some other definitions and resources for members who want more information.

Infringement. If you feel someone has infringed on your work, in other words, has used it and claimed it as their own work, it is treated the same as theft. If the theft can be established in court, the court can award damages and attorney fees.

Fair use. This can be tricky. As a journalist, I can quote a person or a creative work in an article, news story or review. But if I do so in a commercial work such as a book or screenplay, it might be infringement. Fair use depends upon the purpose and character of use and the effect on the market for the original work. In Reid’s example, when Woody Allen was charged with infringement on the work of William Faulkner (Midnight in Paris vs. Requiem for a Nun) the court’s decision was that Faulkner’s work was “transformed” enough so that it became original in Woody Allen’s. The key, Reid said, is that it is “transformative.”

A picture of another work. If you take a photograph or screen shot of an artist’s painting or any creative work, the work is still not yours. It is considered a “derivative work” of the original and is protected under copyright.

Libel in fiction. If you write about a living person, it is not libel unless you make a  “false and defamatory statement of fact ” about an identifiable living person or business entity. And you can’t libel a deceased person, but you can run into trouble if your story reflects badly on a living relative of that person.

Name brands in fiction. As long as you do not show or write about real brands in a way that reflects badly on the companies who manufacture them, you are probably okay because it is like free advertising for the brand.

Song lyrics in fiction. This is considered particularly risky because music producers and distributors can be very aggressive about protecting rights. Your work may be seen as an infringement or a derivative. You can use lyrics in the public domain, or contact the publisher for permission. You can find the name and contact information for the music publisher by looking at the sheet music for the song.

Here are two great websites that have additional, valuable copyright information for authors:

 

Mark Fowler

http://www.rightsofwriters.com/2010/12/can-i-mention-brand-name-products-in-my.html  

 

 

Helen Sedwick

How to Use Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer