On the Subject of Copyright

Dear Reader,

I was asked an interesting question via the Self Publishing Review website the other day about copyright and publishing. I figure many have this question, or might find it interesting, so I’ve taken the liberty of answering here on the blog. From the United States Copyright website

No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright.  Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Now for most self-publishers, this isn’t really an issue. It’s seen as another expense that you may or may not be able to afford. Ask yourself this question, and be honest with your answer: if someone did infringe upon your copyright, would you sue them? Do you have the money to sue them? What do you expect to be a satisfactory resolution to that situation?

I’ve broken down the different items of a book that authors, aspiring and published, might want to copyright below, telling you whether you can copyright it or not, and why.

Copyrighting a Title

You can’t do this. This would technically be more of a trademark, because it is a specific combination of words to create a phrase. A trademark “protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.” So don’t try to copyright your title, because you’ll just be directed somewhere else.

The best protection for your title is to run a number of searches online to ensure that your title is unique so your readers can find you.

Copyrighting an Idea

You can’t do this. No one can lay claim to an idea or discovery. Technically, you can patent a discovery, but your book is hardly a discovery. Your book is an expression of an idea, or collection of ideas. It is that expression which deserves protection, as I’ve explained below.

Copyrighting the Implementation of an Idea

You can do this. For someone to copy your exact words in your exact phrasing with your exact paragraphs is called plagiarism, and is grounds for a lawsuit. You have a stronger foothold with this lawsuit if you have registered for copyright because it is a form of copyright infringement.

Keep in mind copyrighting does not protect you from plagiarism. Having the publication year listed inside the book would be suitable evidence for a plagiarism case. As long as the plagiarist released their work after yours, of course.

That said, you can preregister your work if it is unpublished… Not sure why you would want to do that, though. I guess if someone broke into your house, stole your manuscript, and tried to sell it to the highest bidder? But then that would be outright stealing, and would go to a different court.

The point of making a copyright is that it gives you the right to make copies and that is it. Filing for copyright means that you are the only one allowed to publish it in whatever form you wish. Anyone else trying to publish your work is performing copyright infringement because they don’t have the right to make those copies.

I hope that helps clear the confusion!