Copyright law can seem confusing, but authors need to know the basics—especially when (and whether) to register a copyright, and what to do when using a pseudonym. As a publishing lawyer, I work with copyright issues (and authors) all the time, and today, I thought I’d take a closer look at some popular myths about copyright law and how it applies to novels and other creative works.*
Myth #1: You have to register copyright in order to own the copyright in your work.
False. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not a legal requirement for copyright ownership. Copyright attaches to “qualifying works**” automatically at the time of their creation. However, copyright registration is generally required in order to file a lawsuit against infringers, and to claim certain benefits under the U.S Copyright Act, so authors should register copyright within three months of a work’s initial publication.
(**Short stories, novellas, novels, anthologies, poetry, and similar fiction and non-fiction works all generally qualify for copyright protection.)
Myth #2: Authors benefit from copyright registration.
True! Copyright registration gives copyright holders significant benefits under U.S. law. Among them:
- The right to sue infringers to stop infringement (and recover damages).
- The right to collect “statutory damages” (money, in an amount established under the copyright act) for infringement, even if the infringer did not make substantial profits from wrongful use of the copyrighted work.
- The right to recover attorney fees against an infringer in a successful lawsuit.
Many of these benefits are available only if a work is registered in a timely manner, meaning within three months of initial publication. However, some benefits (such as the right to sue to stop infringement) are available regardless of the timing of registration.
Myth #3: A book is not “published” for copyright purposes if you give it away for free.
False. Under the Copyright Act, “publication” means “the distribution of copies . . . of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending,” or “offering to distribute copies of the work to a group “for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display.” (17 U.S.C. Section 101)
The Copyright Act does not require that the author make any money (or profits) on sales before a work is considered “published.”
Also, the Copyright Act does not distinguish between self-published works and those published by a third-party publishing house. Published is published, regardless of the method the author chooses.
Myth #4: If you don’t register the copyright before publication, you can never register at all. [Read more…]