Hi, friends:

There’s so much confusion about copyright out there these days! A reader on my FB Author page asked me if I could tell him about copyright, so I dug up this post I did for Writer Beware’s blog, back in 2005.

I’m going to re-post it here, and if you have questions…ask away!

Copyright 101 – From Writer Beware’s Blog, December, 2005
.by A.C. Crispin on Saturday, April 23, 2011 at 11:29pm.A.C. Crispin – 21/ Today’s Lesson: Copyright 101

Well, in searching for a topic to post about today, it occurs to me that it might not hurt to discuss copyright from a writer’s point of view. Here are a few basic things I’ve learned over the years:


1. You cannot copyright an “idea.” Only the tangible execution of an idea. That means the idea must be written down or preserved in some fashion. You talked it onto a tape recorder, or wrote it as a book, or a story, or a graphic novel. Some tangible execution.

Under US law, your work is copyrighted as soon as it is produced in a tangible form. That means, from the moment that it leaves your mind and is typed, keyboarded, spoken, filmed, or written out in longhand, etc., it’s legally copyrighted to you, the author.

2. Titles are not copyrightable. That’s why you’ll find different books by different authors with the same title. Two examples are “Millennium” and “White Light.” There are hundreds of authors over the past three hundred or so years who have used “The Price of Freedom” for a title. I knew that when I wrote the book, but it was the best title for my story. So I kept it. It actually comes from a quote by Thomas Jefferson: “The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance.”

3. When people talk about “copyrighting” their work, what they actually mean is REGISTERING the copyright with the US Copyright Office. This will cost you something on the order of 45 bucks. You’ll need to fill out forms, available on the US Copyright Office website, and send a copy or two of the work in. Then your copyright is REGISTERED to you.

4. Do you, the author need to register your copyright? Probably not for a novel, or a nonfiction book. Why not? Because your publisher will copyright the book in your name for you, after they acquire the rights to publish the book by paying you money. By the time the book is published, they will have registered the copyright, so you, the author, don’t have to do that. I’ve never had to register the copyright on any of my original novels. My publisher took care of that for me.

5. Are there exceptions to this advice (that you, the author, should wait for your publisher to register the copyright on your book in your name)?


a. if your book is Print on Demand or an e-book, and if you paid to publish it, you’ll need to register copyright yourself. One of the things that distinguishes a “real” publisher from a vanity press or author mill (like PublishAmerica) is that the author must register his or her own copyright, as opposed to the publisher handling this.

b. these days the copyright laws regarding short stories are a bit muddy, and have come under some question, especially as regards anthologies and magazines. SO…if you write short stories, it’s not a bad idea to grab a handful of them, and register the copyright on them yourself. You can send in five or ten at a time, for the same fee.

c. if you are an aspiring author and extremely paranoid that someone will steal your book and attempt to publish it, sure, go ahead and register your copyright yourself. That way, if your worst fears are realized, you’ll be able to sue for big bucks in damages. HOWEVER, if you do this, for goodness sakes keep the fact that you’ve done it to yourself. DO NOT put a line in your query letter or cover letter to the effect that: “Oh, and by the way, this book is copyrighted, so don’t even think of stealing it, because I’ll sue you.”

Hey, I know you’re rolling your eyes, but I assure you that agents and editors get letters with warnings like these all the time. And those letters earn their author a quick trip on the Round File Express to Dumpsterland.

7. Are there any times when an author’s name will NOT appear on the copyright page?

Yes. When an author does what is called “tie-in” or “franchise” writing, in a universe established by another creator, the work will be copyrighted to the original creator of the universe, or the corporation that owns the license, rather than to the person that actually wrote the book. For example, if you look at the copyright page of any of my Star Wars novels, you’ll see that the work is copyrighted “Lucasfilm” rather than “A.C. Crispin.” The Price of Freedom is copyrighted by Disney, not by me.

But this is not something you need to worry too much about, since franchise universes don’t deal with authors unless they have recognized literary agents and a good track record of sales.

The ONLY exception to the above is the horrendous demand made by a few lunatic fringe scam publishers that the author should sign over his or her copyright to the publisher. This is such an outrageous demand that even Writer Beware has only found a few scam publishers that demand this. One of the worst is Royal Fireworks. Obviously, they are a major AVOID.

9. With the above in mind, it should be easy to remember that when you, the author, sell a book, what you’re selling is the RIGHT TO PUBLISH, not the copyright. Remember this, and remember it well: copyright and publishing rights are NOT the same thing. A publisher basically LEASES the right to publish your book…you, the writer, still own the copyright to it.

10. If you feel the need to protect yourself against plagiarism (though to be brutally frank, unpublished manuscripts are fairly worthless to anyone but their authors), spend the money and register your copyright with the US Copyright Office. Don’t fall for the advice of clueless writers on the internet, or even some so-called “publishers” (PublishAmerica springs to mind, cause they do this) and decide to use the “poor man’s copyright.” Sending your manuscript to yourself in a sealed envelope is not the same thing as actually registering your copyright. It’s worthless, and won’t hold up in court as proof of authorship.

Anyhow, hope that little primer is helpful. If you have questions, ask away.

-Ann C. Crispin