Thursday, April 10, 2014

Copyright Demystified

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series

Since the 1976 Copyright Act, a work (in our case, a book or piece of fiction) no longer has to be registered with the US Copyright Office to enjoy protection under federal law. But there are distinct benefits to registering your copyright.

Basic Copyright

Anything original that you write has automatic and immediate copyright protection the moment it is “fixed in a tangible form of expression”—in other words, written down, even in electronic form.

The key concepts here are that the work must be original (“original works of authorship”) and that it should be fixed; if you tell someone all about the book you’re going to write and they then hijack your idea and write it, you have no recourse—the work must be “fixed in a tangible medium”. As soon as you do that, your original work enjoys copyright protection. The only exceptions which concern us as authors are titles and short phrases, slogans, etc., neither of which can be copyrighted.

This basic, automatic copyright for all works, even those not registered with the Copyright Office, has limits, however, and I’d strongly recommend that authors register their works so as to enjoy the stronger protection of registration (see below).

Copyright Notice

Regardless of whether or not a copyright has been registered, it’s advisable to place a copyright notice, e.g., © 2014 Dario Ciriello somewhere visible on the work. The three key elements—the copyright symbol © (or the word Copyright, or the abbreviation, Copr.), the year of copyright, and the copyright holder’s name—are all that’s needed.

Copyright protection applies irrespective of whether the author includes a copyright notice, but failure to display one makes it easy for someone infringing your copyright to argue “innocent infringement”, or that they didn’t know the work was copyrighted and not in the public domain.

Registered Copyright

Copyright registration is easy, and there are good reasons for doing it. In addition, a work does not need to be published in order to register copyright. (That said, if significant additions or changes—i.e., beyond correcting typos, etc. are made—it may need to be registered as a new work).
  • One reason to register is that you can’t sue someone for infringement without having first registered your copyright. Although you can register copyright of a work anytime before the expiration of copyright—70 years after the author’s death—there are solid benefits to early registration.
  • If you register a work “within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work,” you’re eligible to be awarded attorney’s fees and costs as well as statutory damages, which can be very substantial; this status also means that you may be able to retain a lawyer on a contingency basis. Again, you do not need to publish to register. Without copyright registration you’re only entitled to “actual damages” and any profits the infringer can be proved to have made...good luck with that.
  • Registration “before the end of five years after the date of first publication” will be taken as prima facie evidence in a court of the validity of your copyright and the facts stated in registration. This means that the burden is on the defendant to prove you are not the owner of the copyright—a tough proposition.

How to Register Your Copyright

There are two ways to register your copyright: file online for $35 per work (you can still do this even if mailing hard copy) or by mail for $65 per work (rising to $85 on May 1, 2014).

For full details. If you’re ready to file, you can just go straight to the website and hit the round “eCO” (Electronic Copyright Office) button to register online. Turnaround time is in the order of several months, and up to a year for mail registration.

Library of Congress

You may be surprised to hear it, but it’s a mandatory requirement that two hard copies of all published works be sent to the Library of Congress (LoC). The “Mandatory Deposit” (17 U.S.C. section 407) rule requires that “ two complete copies of the best edition” be deposited with the LoC “within 3 months after a work is published.”

This in fact is what happens to the two hard copies of your book that you provide when you register copyright—they’re sent to the LoC, along with the 10,000-20,000 other new items which arrive there every day. If you register copyright, the Mandatory Deposit rule is fulfilled; if you don’t register, although the chances of a midnight raid from the much-feared, rubber-stamp-wielding LoC stormtroopers is quite small, you really should send two copies of your book to the LoC at

Library of Congress
Copyright Office-CAD 407
101 Independence Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20559-6607

The initial intention of Mandatory Deposit was of course to form the basis of a national library, so that books and works of literature could be made freely available to all. Today, with new books pouring in at such a rate that they require several miles of new shelving a year, I imagine that this requirement has become a very mixed blessing, especially since the LoC isn’t allowed to throw anything away—rejected items are traded with libraries worldwide, sent to federal agencies, or donated to US schools, communities, and other organizations.

Just Do It

In conclusion, it’s simple and inexpensive to register copyright, and you should do so. Although automatic or “poor man’s copyright” gives you basic copyright protection, you need to register if you really want to cover yourself and have actionable, solid protection for your intellectual property.

I hope I’ve addressed any questions or confusion you may have had over the issue of copyright protection, and of course look forward to any comments you may have.

Further reading

“Copyright Basics” (US Copyright Office)

“The Benefits of Copyright Registration” by Ken Liu

“Copyright Law of the United States” (Wikipedia)

“How to Copyright a Book”

“How to Copyright a Book” WikiHow

“Mandatory Deposit” (US Copyright Office)

"The Ultimate Guide to Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMAC)"

Dario Ciriello

Dario Ciriello is the founder and editor of Panverse Publishing, a small press with a mission to break the rigid barriers of category and genre and put story first. His Panverse Anthology authors have been nominated for both Hugo and Nebula awards, and the winner of the 2011 Sideways Award for Alternate History. On the novel front, his authors include T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, Doug Sharp, and Don D'Ammassa. His own work includes Sutherland's Rules, and the travel memoir Aegean Dream. Panverse is currently open for submissions.

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  1. Thanks for such a clear and concise summary. But what do authors of works published only in electronic format do about the requirement to send two hard copies to the Library of Congress?

  2. Hi Evelyn, and thanks for your excellent question! The short answer is that they'll now accept a digital copy (just one, or two in the case of a serial) of published ebooks. You can (and should) read the detail which can be found on pages 2 and 3 of the Copyright Office's clear and informative pdf at . It's worth noting that if the work is only published online, the deposit requirement is void, except in the case of a serialized work, in which case the rule applies.

  3. With photography I have run into this very thing. Someone stole a friends film without paying and used it in advertising. Ooofdie what a fat lawsuit that was :) I thank you for the article. Will be publishing an indie work soon.

    1. Wow, stealing someones film, physical source material? OMG. Yeah, I bet that was a fat suit. ;-) Good luck with your own publishing, Harry!

  4. Thanks for posting this; it answers questions my students always have.

    1. You're so welcome, Carol! I'm glad the post was helpful. Although at the rarefied level (Sherlock Holmes copyright, Disney, etc.), copyright law becomes really esoteric to any of us laypeople, the basics really are quite simple and user-friendly.