Copyright; it’s a scary word, but like all creative professionals, authors need to understand it. You’ve probably thought about copyrighting your work at least once. So, to help you better understand it, here’s a quick summary of some of the most often asked copyright issues.

What is a copyright?

Let’s begin by explaining just what copyright means? Copyright is the right to control reproduction and commercial exploitation of your work. This means others cannot make money off something you created, without compensating you. It protects any kind of work: books, movies, photographs, graphic designs, etc. Copyright falls under Intellectual Property laws, which concern creations of the human mind. So basically, if you can create it, you can own it. What does this mean to you?

Do I need to copyright my work?

Technically, your work is automatically protected under Intellectual Property laws. Anything you create, design, draw or write is legally yours, provided you have physical evidence. To make sure, you can register your work under copyright laws. But, since it is already copyrighted, unless you expect to have to file a claim, it really isn’t necessary.

One additional step you can take is to put your manuscript in an envelope and mail it to yourself.

This is known as a “poor man’s copyright.” In a time of need, the USPO’s (United States Post Office) date stamp is credibility enough of when you wrote your work. This can be beneficial if someone attempts to claim they wrote your work before you did.

However, my Literary Attorney informs me that if you think this is all you need to prove your claim in court, you are sadly mistaken. “There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”[1] The only way to ensure your claim will stand up in court is to actually file your copyright claim with the government. This is a fairly straight forward process and not all that expensive. At the time of this writing the filing fee is $35 if you register one work by a single author. Otherwise, the fee for online registration is $55. So, if you think that someone might steal your work then you need to register it. Here’s the link to get your copyright started:

The only exception I am currently aware of is if you’re employed or under contract to create this work, then it may be owned by your employer/contractor. Most employment agreements stipulate that anything you create for that company, while you’re employed, is owned by it.[2] You may have the right to use it for your portfolio, but I highly advise you to run it by your employer first; just in case. Obviously, if this is your situation, you can’t sell your work to another organization.

When should I register my work?

When your registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. But, the sooner you register, the sooner you are covered in the case that a plagiarism claim is necessary to be made. When you choose to register your work it verifies the fact that your copyright is a legally registered work on public record. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation.

Will my copyright status be honored worldwide?

The sad answer is no. Nevertheless, the US has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world. As a result of these agreements they honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. However, the United States does not have copyright relationships with every country. So, when you have a question in this regard you may want to check with the copyright office.

I want to quote another author or use a part of a current work; is that legal?

The answer is yes, but. . . . states, “Under the “fair use” rule of copyright law, an author may make limited use of another author’s work without asking permission. Fair use is based upon the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. The fair-use privilege is perhaps the most significant limitation on a copyright owner’s exclusive rights. If you write or publish, you need a basic understanding of what is and is not fair use.

“A use that benefits the public can qualify as a fair use, even if it makes money for the user.”[3]

So, you can quote a short part of a work as long as it is not the ‘heart’ of the work without permission as fair use allows. Merely citing the source does not make it legal, but it does show the intent if a question arises. Nevertheless, the safest course of action is to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. Learn more about this subject in Section 107 of the US Copyright Code.

The next question continues this train of thought.

I did not create this image; can I use it if I change it?

We all know the importance of having access to royalty-free stock photos. We use them in our books and especially on our book covers. But what if you find a graphic designs or other image on Google Images, Flickr, or somewhere similar? It’s safe to assume that any other images you find are copyrighted as well. Many people believe the myth that if they change an existing image a percentage (10%, 30%, etc.) they can legally use it. Be advised: that is not the law.

What about Fair Use for Images?

Fair Use applies only if you are downloading and altering it for your personal use. Modifying or altering an image is infringing upon the copyright owner’s rights unless expressed permission is granted or the modification falls under fair use (which is highly unlikely). So, for any other use contact the creator or whoever owns the rights to the image. Sometimes all it takes is asking for permission (and a small fee) to use an image. If the copyright owner can’t be located and therefore, permission to use or alter the image obtained, what can you do next? Don’t use it; plain and simple.

I hope that this gives you a brief glimpse into copyright, what it is and what it isn’t. However, if in doubt, consult a copyright attorney.

For more information on citing copyrighted work read my previous article, Give Credit Where and When It’s Due.




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