Copyrighting Your Work 101

This post, from the Open Publishing Lab at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology, originally appeared on the OPL’s Open Publishing Guide site on 1/25/09.

Something we get asked about a lot is copyright.  As creators, we want to make sure our work is protected from intellectual property theft, and ensure that we control the publication, distribution and adaptation of what we’ve created. The problem is that copyright can be confusing and there are a lot of misconceptions about it.

Hopefully, I can help clear some things up and give you some resources for more information on copyright if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Please note that this information is focused on copyright in the United States. For more information on International copyrights, please check out the links at the bottom of the post.

What is Copyright?
To begin with, I’m going to get the easy stuff out of the way. With a quick Google search, you can find the basics of what copyright is as well as in-depth discussion and even some analysis. As such, I am going to keep this as simple as possible. Copyright protects the rights of creators of literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. Specifically, it gives the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to, and to authorize others the right to, reproduce, distribute, perform, or display the work. It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the law to copyright holders.

For more information on what copyright entails, check out the US Copyright Office’s Copyright Basics.

How Do I Protect My Work?
The good news is that a work is considered copyrighted as soon as you create it. So, as I’m typing these words, they are simultaneously copyrighted under the law. As a result, you don’t have to do anything beyond creating your work (which, sadly, is the hard part). However, holding a registered copyright is extremely helpful if you find yourself in litigation if you have to deal with a copyright violation. With a registered certification you will be given a certificate of registration, will be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation, and if the registration occurs within 5 years of publication, then it is considered prima facie evidence

The US Copyright Office now allows online registration of copyright, making the process even easier. Of course, you can still register using paper forms, but doing so is a little more expensive, and can take longer to process. Filing for registration online is $35, and you can get started here. If you choose to file online, then you can upload your work to the copyright office or mail copies to them.

Some people claim you can create a “poor man’s copyright” by mailing a copy of your work to yourself via certified mail (or another trackable system). However, copyright law does not cover this type of protection, and as a result does not confer the same protections as registering your copyright.

What Other Options Are There?
If you are interested in protecting your work in some ways, but want to allow others to build upon and share your work, then you may be interested in using a Creative Commons license in place of a standard copyright. Creative Commons works alongside copyright, and allows you to apply a series of free attributes to your work, which you can choose whether or not to use. The license options are Attribution, Share Alike, Noncommercial, and No Derivative Works.

By assigning Attribution to your work, you give others the right to copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work as long as they give credit the way you request. Share Alike allows others to distribute derivative works, but only under the same license you have assigned to your work.

Noncommercial allows others to copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work as long as it is for noncommercial purposes. Finally, No

Derivative Works allows others to copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work, but not derivative works. These licenses can be combined into six licenses, which are covered on the Creative Commons site.

There you have it, the basics of copyright. I hope this was helpful. If you are looking for more information on the subject, these links are a good place to start:
Where to Copyright – Global Copyright resources
10 Myths About Copyright by Brad Templeton (Chairman of the Board of the EFF)
Copyright Essentials For Writers By Holly Jahangiri

Visit the Open Publishing Guide for a wealth of additional resources related to self-publishing.

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