Welcome back readers to another installment of Being a Better Writer! The last edition that will go up live, and not on a schedule, for about four weeks! That’s right, if you missed the big news post on Friday (linked here for your expanded reading pleasure) one of the upcoming things going on with me is a trip to Alaska to do a commercial fishing trip, so for the next few weeks all the posts will be scheduled to go up on their own.
Oh, and if you missed last Friday’s news post, you may have also missed Saturday’s, which featured a fun little news clip from my hometown starring yours truly. Give it a listen!
Oh, and Patreon Supporters got another preview story on Saturday as well. Go check it out!
Anyway, I’ll be spending the next few days getting a nice backlog of posts ready, and then I head out this weekend. The goal is to have 3-4 weeks of content done in advance, even though the trip might only take two weeks. With commercial fishing, you go until you’ve got the quota, so if I am gone for three or four weeks, the content pipeline won’t dry up.
Anyway, that’s the plan. So, with so much other news covered, let’s get right down to business. Now, I warn you, this post is going to probably be a bit shorter than normal. It’s a reader-requested topic, but I gathered from the way the question was phrased that the reader who asked it expected the answer to be much more complicated than it actually is.
Which honestly is to each of our favor, because copyright law and legal matters like that? They’re messy. So this being easier than expected is kind of a boon. So let’s get down to it. You’ve started writing out your story, your world and characters have taken shape.
When do you need to copyright it?
Well, as it turns out … you don’t. Already I can hear the questioning cries and see the confused expressions from here, so yeah, we’re going to go a bit more in depth.
Look, it used to be that in order for your book to be copyrighted, you had to print off a copy of it and send it, along with an application and a cash fee, to the US copyright office. At which point it would be on file as “yours.” And you can actually still do this. But you don’t have to anymore.
See, the law has changed. Once you put words on paper—or in a file—those words are copyright you! Congratulations! That’s how the US copyright system now works (and has worked for some time). It’s yours.
Done. That’s it. We’re good here.
Okay, so we’re not. “Why then,” one might ask, “can one still send their work to be registered with the copyright office if it’s automatically copyrighted?”
The answer is pretty straightforward: Records. The copyright office provides a very firm record of “Yes, this is copyright so-and-so on this date and year, when it was written, we recorded it.” So if someone does steal something (which does happen even in this day and age) it makes it a lot easier to prove that yes, it was stolen.
Thing is, this isn’t the only way to prove that something has been subject to a copyright violation. For example, if someone were to steal one of my books and start selling it, I’d be able to very quickly prove that I’d both written and sold that product for quite some time. Since I maintain a very strong record of all my projects (and keep a close eye on who is given access to them before release), as well as a long, large folder of all my works from concept to final, I’d have a long pile of evidence saying “Yes, this is my work, started years ago. Here are all the dates, here lies the record of the sales, etc.” I’d just need to compile all that evidence rather than asking the copyright office for a record of a dated bill (though to be fair, even if I were to ask the copyright office, the rest of the material would still be instrumental).
While I can’t say for certain, this might be why the copyright office has changed things and you no longer have to send in something with the fee. Where back in the day all one might have is a bit of typewriter paper with a date that could be faked, nowadays one of the key elements of our lives is an almost impossible to erase digital signature. Word files (and most operating systems) keep track of not only when a file was last accessed, but also when it was modified and indeed created. Having multiple files for each step of the process of creating book, across several sources, provides a very strong record of “This thing belongs to me.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that fighting against a copyright violation will be open and shut in either case. Some people have a lot of money to throw after their theft. Sands, a few years ago a major book thief lost a combined case against several authors at the same time that had lasted, IIRC, about three years. They had to pay back all the money they’d made off their theft, plus damages … and again IIRC less than a week later they were found already trying to sell a new stolen book.
But honestly, whether or not you’ve paid a fee to the copyright office, your work is copyrighted the moment it leaves your fingertips and hits the page. This post? Copyright © 2021 Max Florschutz, as soon as I’ve typed it.
So then why do so many people continue to bring up “Send it to the office” as plot points (seen this) or in general as if you don’t have a copyright until then? Simple, they’re people stuck in the past who don’t realize that the law has changed. It’s kind of a trope, the way “I stole the deed, I now own this property” is a trope. Yes, it was a thing at one time, but that time is long since past since there were issues with it (specifically mustache-twirling villainy) and the law sought to rectify those issues.
So congratulations. You can send a copy plus the fee to the copyright office. Or not. But either way, your work is yours and protected by US law. All rights reserved.
Okay, so let’s break this down a bit and talk about that phrase for a moment. And the concept of copyright in general. Why should you care? What does copyright cover? What does “All rights reserved” mean?
Turns out, you should care about copyright for more reasons than just “So no one can steal my book.” Copyright, and “All rights reserved” means that you are the owner of derivative products. So for example, a movie production company can’t read your book, say “I love this” and then go make a movie adaptation of it. They don’t own the rights to it. Copyright has reserved those rights for the creator. Graphic novel? Same thing. Music album? Same thing. Video game? You guessed it … same thing.
Copyright covers any use of your creation. A toymaker cannot make toys of your story without purchasing (usually for a set period of time) the right to use your copyrighted material. A filmmaker cannot create a film or series of your work without doing the same.
In other words, copyright is protective. If not for copyright, a large company could simply take whatever books it liked and make them into other mediums, advertise them until the creator’s original was driven into oblivion, and take all the money. Now, they can still buy the rights to do so, but that’s a bit trickier (and also a hard lesson for some in not undervaluing what you have, as some creators have found out the hard way).
Thing is—though some might disagree—for a lot of authors, especially those in Trad Pub, the only way to make any real money is off auctioning the rights to their created work to film studios. Again, some may disagree that this is the only way to make money (and it isn’t, as there are still some rockstar authors out there), but there are a lot of authors who write and create this way. Their goal isn’t to write an incredible book, but a YA book that gets just enough success to be optioned to be a film or a series, because that’s a recurring payment from an industry that has lots of money to throw around compared to the standard book royalty and advance (No joke, a book advance might earn you a few thousand dollars as a one-time payment, while a film option can be a payment in the hundreds of thousands that has to be renewed every few years).
This is what “All Rights Reserved” means. You wrote your story. You created the setting. And thereby, you are the one who has final say in whether or not anyone else can use that setting. And if they’re using it to make a whole lot of money, well, that’d be impossible without you making it exist, and therefore someone cannot simply take what you created.
With all this said then, what does copyright protect? Because here we get into the weeds a bit. Yes, someone can make a “numbers filed off” version and sell it. Sometimes they literally do this by using CTRL+F to find and replace things. This is still plagiarism, and usually gets caught pretty quickly.
But what about actually writing their own “numbers filed off story?” What if they loved your setting, so they wrote their own distorted mirror of it, where all the names and everything were different, but it was clearly based on your idea. Is that violation of copyright?
No. Because ideas and concepts cannot be copyrighted. That’s why so much fantasy for a while was simply numbers filed off Tolkien. Because you can’t copyright a concept. I can no more copyright the concept of “submarine racing” or “magic only works when you’re drunk” than I can copyright the “edgy loner character” and then go after every single book that uses the concept.
Ideas? They aren’t copyrightable. This is why Butcher could release and write a six-book series on the challenge to combine the concepts of “Pokemon” with “The Lost Roman Legion.” Because those are concepts and ideas to build from, not copyrighted stories. Had he used a character like “Ash Ketchum” and actual Pokemon? Yes, that would have been a copyright violation. Instead, Butcher went back to the underpinnings of the concept that made Pokemon: people taming wild nature spirits/animals and using their powers.
So no, your ideas are not copyrightable. Ideas are just ideas, and they’re a dime a dozen. What’s created from the execution, however, is yours. All rights reserved. Characters, setting, the particular journey those characters go through (note that it’s not the idea of the journey, just the one your characters go on) … all of that is copyright you.
So what does this all mean in the long run? Well, that you can sit down and write your story and not worry that much about it being stolen and you not being able to do anything about it. You don’t have to send it into some government office to own what you have created. You own it. It’s your creation, copyright you, all rights reserved, once you’ve made it.
But … there are some exceptions. Fanfiction or other forms of fanwork, for example, fall into a legal grey area (to put it simply) and aren’t really yours. Because you don’t have any “right” to play in someone else’s universe. If you go looking to make money off of your fanwork, by selling it or similar? You’re violating someone else’s copyright, and you will get nailed for that.
At the same time, disputes with fans over fan content have led to why most authors advise very strongly against reading fanworks of your own work. After a “fan” of a setting that allowed fanwork sued the creator for one of their later books being close to what the fan had predicted in their fanfic, arguing that clearly what happened to the characters was their idea and the creator had borrowed it … Yeah, most simply wish to avoid this sort of entanglement, even if that author did win the case (but by then the damage was done).
Your mileage may vary. But no one wants to get involved with these court cases.
This post also isn’t to say that you shouldn’t protect your creations before they’re well-known. Or in other words, before it’d be fairly easy to prove “Yes, this is mine” keep your work secure. There was a case back in the late 90s where an up-and-coming writer who’d just secured a trad-pub deal was hit with, of all things, a copyright violation (her and a her publisher). It turned out, after a lengthy involved court battle (and according to the filings) that her college roommate had been for years during college copying everything this creator made off her unsecured computer and sending it out to publishers on her own. Which made actual ownership incredibly difficult to determine, because both had long digital records going back for years.
I don’t recall all of how it shook out, but I believe that before the case was even over her publisher dumped her because the cost of the litigation wasn’t worth the money they’d planned to make from her work.
But there’s one more thing that this post needs to say before we’re done: If you’re about to do any sort of contract, with a publisher, or with someone to purchase rights to something you’ve created.
GET. A. LAWYER.
That’s right. All caps, all bold. Do not hesitate, because the people you will be dealing with? They will have lawyers, and they will know their stuff. If you don’t want wind up a cautionary tale, like that woman who got locked out of the publishing industry by a bad contract (long story short, the pub picked her and her book up just to kill the book and had in the contract that she wasn’t allowed to sell/publish to anyone but them, even if they turned her down). Or any of the other cautionary tales out there.
Get a lawyer, go over what you’re selling (or worse, giving up).
With that, I draw this post to a close. Hopefully this answered some questions about copyright and what you need to keep in mind while you’re working. And as I type that, I can think of one last copyright question. Two, actually.
Yes, you need the rights to whatever cover you want to use, if you’re responsible for that. Make your contract with the artist accordingly. Get it in writing.
Second, do have a copyright legal page on your book. It’s an up-front notification both for yourself and others that this work is yours.
And since that last topic did bring to mind one other associated topic … let’s speak for a small moment on piracy. Yes, it’s theft. Yes, it’s scummy. Yes, there are going to be pirate sites that make money off of your work.
It’s also nigh-impossible to stop them. A few authors have tried. It’s like playing whack-a-mole against a living, somewhat sentient ooze. Eventually, you spend more time trying to fight it than writing.
So you just have to let the big companies do it. Publishers, Amazon, Microsoft (MS actually is pretty good at this). It sucks, and nothing will stop it, but there isn’t anything you can realistically do about it.
Anyway, just wanted to point that out. Piracy? Copyright law makes it clearly illegal, but that doesn’t stop slag-suckers. Not much you can do about terrible people wanting to be a terrible.
What you can do for you though is know what protections you have. In that regard, I hope this post answered the questions of the reader who put them forth, and was useful to both them and the rest of you.
So until next week …
Good luck. Now get writing.
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4 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: A Little Bit About Copyright”
That was both A) way more information on Copyright than I expected and B) not at all the specific information I was expecting. Very nice post, Max.
Now I have to ask: what information were you expecting? And thank you!
I was wondering about the different types of Copyrights you could apply for. I understand there are several, but what applies to whom?
When it comes to US copyright law, the “type” of copyright you’d be applying for would be “Literary” since it’s over a written work. A quick Google says that there are other types in other countries (like Canada) or for something that’s a “tricky area” like derivative works or collections with a bunch of people’s work in them, but in general it’s just a copyright, and shouldn’t be more complicated than that to my knowledge.