Copyright Laws: Protecting Writers
Understanding copyright laws: Beginning writers are sometimes unaware of the copyright laws that automatically protect their work from infringement and plagiarism. Here are five common myths, and the truth behind them.
Beginning writers often work towards their goal of publication without a clear understanding of the copyright laws designed to protect their works from infringement and plagiarism. Before an author signs that first contract or allows his article to be published in a magazine or website, he needs to understand his rights as an author under federal copyright laws. But several myths concerning these laws and their protective powers have sprung up over the years, so a creative artist should make sure they have the facts, not the fallacies. Here are five of the most common myths concerning copyright laws, and the facts behind them.
Myth #1: 'I must register my work through the Copyright Office in order to be protected.' Registration of your works through a formal Copyright Office application does give you added protection and documentation should a legal challenge arise, but is not strictly necessary for copyright protection. Under current laws, an original creative work is AUTOMATICALLY covered by copyright laws once it exists in a permanent form. That means that once a work is printed on paper or stored as a permanent computer file, it is fully protected by copyright. Registering a group of works with the federal Copyright Office is never a bad idea, because it does establish time and date of creation in a legal sense, but can become costly in the long run.
Myth #2:'I can mail a sealed copy of my work to myself and be fully protected.' This misconception has become quite commonplace, and has enough truth in it to barely qualify as a myth. The practice of sending yourself a sealed copy of your work in order to obtain an official postmark is called a poor man's copyright. Since the cost of having works officially registered with the government can be substantial, many authors use the poor man's copyright method as a cheaper alternative. As with myth #1, this added protection is not strictly necessary due to the automatic protection issued by the law, but does offer some proof of the time a work was created.
Myth #3: 'I'll always have some rights to my work, no matter what I sign.' Copyrights on your work exist as long as you want them to exist, but are not permanent and inflexible. If you submit your work to a publisher for consideration, that publisher has certain established policies concerning rights. As an author, it is your responsibility to understand what rights the publisher might want to obtain, and decide whether or not you can agree to those terms. The common thinking is to not allow a publisher to acquire all rights to your work, but if those are the terms offered and you feel that the compensation is acceptable, then you do indeed reliquish ALL rights to the published work. More commonly, publishers acquire less permanent rights, like the right to publish the work first in North America or the right to publish a work one time in a magazine. You are still bound under the terms of the agreement to honor this request, but you will eventually get your rights back.
Myth #4: 'Copyright infringement only happens to the major writers and artists, not to someone like me.' While it may be true that most copyright cases involve major league artists whose works are copied illegally or plagiarized by other artists, any published work is vulnerable to infringement. With the sudden growth in Internet publication and other large scale distribution of even the most amateur works, there is every chance that something you created might be copied or stolen by someone with no respect for the law. Your chances of recovering actual damages may be limited by your ability to prove intellectual theft of property, but you should make an effort to know where your works are published or posted.
Myth #5: 'I'll never be involved in any litigation with my own work, so copyright issues aren't that important to me'. If a creative artist has every intention on becoming a professional, then knowledge of the copyright laws is critical. Many cases of copyright infringement and theft of intellectual property start in the 'minor leagues'. Here's one scenario to consider: An unestablished writer creates an idea for a children's television show, only to have his script rejected by the major studios. Five years later, the writer sees a children's show with basically the same premise and characters that the studio previously rejected. This time, the show credits a well-known writer with the creation of the program. If you don't believe that the courts have handled many cases similar to that scenario, you've got another thing coming. Ideas that are rejected by publishers are still protected by copyright laws, and an artist who is serious about the business end of his craft should always be aware of the possibility of intellectual theft and plagiarism. No artist in any field is too big or too small to escape possible legal action either on their behalf or against them.