Monday, March 19, 2012

Copyright Details for Writers, A Workshop by Brenda Speer

I have the privilege to belong to two writer's groups with local attorney Brenda Speer, who specializes in copyright law (as well as related law). This weekend, my NLAPW group got to have her as our speaker on protecting our creative rights. I thought I would pass along a little of what I learned (I took pages of notes, so this is just a brief snapshot).

Before we begin, her notes are available at her website If you scan down that page, you'll find "Intellectual Property for Creatives," which is the presentation we were privy to.

A quick disclaimer, anything I pass along, and anything she said, is to be taken as legal information, not as legal advice. Every case is different, so this is not intended as a blanket process.

First, she explained that ideas and concepts are not protectable, but once they are made tangible expressions (i.e. written down), they are; this is when they become intellectual property. As copyrighting is what applies most to writing, that is what I will focus on from my notes.

You can copyright literary works, which includes blog posts and correspondence. When you copyright your writing, you retain the exclusive rights to reproduce your piece, prepare derivative works (for instance, a screenplay or different language version), distribute copies, perform the piece publicly and/or display the piece publicly.

Once you've written your piece, you have created that tangible intellectual property. It is a good idea to register (copyright) it upon publication. Registration provides you with proof of ownership and creates a public record of it, which is a prerequisite of filing suit. If you haven't registered your piece, you will not have full protection of it should something occur.

It's also a good idea to place a visual marking saying you have copyrighted your piece. It is no longer required to provide that marking, but there's no good reason not to. You can do the symbol that consists of a "c" in a circle, write it out (copyright "year" "author name"), or an abbreviation (copr. "year" "author name"). The year can be the year of creation or year of publication, with it usually being the year of publication.

Individual copyrights last for the life of the author, plus 70 years. A joint work copyright lasts for the life of the longest lived of the authors, plus 70 years. With a work for hire situation, the copyright lasts the earlier of 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation.

Side note: All works published before January 1, 1923 are in the public domain. Otherwise, an item is in the public domain at the expiration of the above terms.

*Caveat: Public availability does not mean public domain. So just because you find a book online or at the library, does not mean it is public domain and may be redistributed.

One thing Brenda stressed was that there are no copyright police! You must police your own works to be sure they aren't being falsely distributed. Sometimes this happens by chance, by someone else telling you, or by searching online.

Should someone steal your work, the piece must be registered with the copyright office for you to be able to bring a civil suit. It is highly recommended that you file within 3 months of publication for full protection. Should you register it after the theft, you will not be due anything other than the actual cost, if I understood it correctly, so it is definitely worth your while to register.

If you've registered/copyrighted your piece, you can sue for damages, including actual and statutory. Actual is the actual cost you were out, so if they made $50 selling your work, you can sue for that actual cost of $50. Statutory can get you $750 to $30,000, or up to $150,000 should the court decide this wrong was committed with full knowledge and willful harm. Statutory can go beyond the actual costs, so if they made $50 from selling your item, but the court decides to award you a statutory ruling, they can give you more than that physically lost cost.

You can also sue for attorney fees, an injunction and impound & destroy, meaning they have to pull back the product they can and destroy it.

As I briefly already mentioned, it isn't just novels you can protect. Brenda recommended protecting your short stories. If you put out an anthology of your works, you can protect it as a whole, but if one becomes a breakout hit, separately copyright that story, as well.

Some copyright myths Brenda debunked:
1. Attribution is sufficient. False! Simply saying who it is from is not enough to protect you against lawsuit.
2. No remuneration makes it okay. False! Just because you have made no money off of it, does not mean you cannot be sued (see statutory damages, above).
3. Author promotion ("But the author is getting free promotion out of it"). False! Doesn't matter unless you got permission from the author.
4. Use of x number of words or y% of the work is permissible. False! Nope. It doesn't matter how little you use of it, it's not okay.
5. Transformation of x% makes it okay. False! You cannot change some portion of it and call it okay. They can still come after you.

What is okay?
1. Having express permission from the creator/owner
2. Licensing
3. Without licensing, in the following ways (Fair Use Defense): Using it for criticism, commentary, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research
4. Miscellaneous ways it may be acceptable: parody, satire, creative commons (if they have it marked as something you can freely use).

I hope this has helped some. It's a fantastic presentation, and well worth attending if you ever have the opportunity. It is worth mentioning that your publisher does not register for you, so you may still want to look at copyrighting your work, even if you were published traditionally.

Have you registered/copyrighted your published works? If not, does this information make you consider it?

May you find your Muse.


  1. Oh I definitely intend to get my work copyrighted.

  2. It's good to set up Google Alerts, so you can kind of track things. Google doesn't catch everything though.

  3. Great post. Lots of stuff to think about.

  4. Learned a lot but is that $35 a post on your blog or do you copyright your blog? OK I'm confused. (:

  5. Excellent advice. I'd assumed that attribution was okay, but thanks for the heads up :)

  6. Wow, thank you for all the information!

  7. Hi Shannon - congratulations, you won my blog giveaway! Do you want to drop by and let me know your address?

  8. While our work/art is copyrighted once we write, legal copyrighting your work should be a priority once your work is available to the reading public especially if you are going the self published way. Creative commons licensing does work for blogs that form a part of your business or writing process. It allows you to set the parameters.
    Very informative post.

  9. Shannon,

    Very good summation! Thank you for the recognition. I'm glad to know that you found the information helpful.

    As M Pax commented, Google alerts are a great tool. That's how I learned of your blog post.

  10. I looked up copyright info in South Africa before I began publishing my work, and decided not to register it. Couldn't quite remember why I decided that, though, so your post prompted me to look it up again! I found this on the website of a copyright attorny

    Copyright in South Africa, like in most other countries, differs from other forms of intellectual property in that it is not a right that needs to be registered (except in the USA).

    Unlike patents, trademarks or registered designs, copyright vests in the author of a work once the work is created in a material form.

    Still sounds a little dodgy to me not to have it properly legalised, but I've read the same thing in numerous places online...

  11. Alex, hope it helps!

    Misha, me, too!

    L. Diane, exactly! It is about $10 more if you mail it in, but not too shabby when done online.

    Beth, thanks!

    M Pax, I definitely agree with you! I have several Google Alerts set up for myself, though things do slip through or come several days late sometimes. It's really handy to be able to use that.

    Julie, thanks!

    Andrew, it would probably be a good idea for you if you haven't already done it!

    Debra, you'd have to protect each post on your blog independently, which makes me think that won't be happening for me.

    Jamie, I had done the same thing for quite awhile. This was eye opening, to say the least.

    Talli, I hope it helps!

    Jenny, yay! Will be along shortly.

    Rek, all very true, what you said.

    Brenda, thank you! Hopefully I got everything right.

    Rachel, that's really interesting. So it sounds like the U.S. are the ones who need that backup to feel like they can pursue action.

  12. I registered my latest novel with the Library of Congress. Does that count? Still slightly confused...
    BTW, following you now.

  13. Hello!
    I gave you an award on my blog. You can retrieve it at

  14. Catherine, it sounds like it's the same thing. is run by Library of Congress:

    Yadin, thanks, Yadin!