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Copyright Law: What A Writer Needs to Know

Please welcome my guest Cheryl Lynn Black, an intellectual property attorney who is passionate about her work. Almost 20 years in the profession and she still enjoys researching and learning about changes and developments in trademark, copyright and publishing law. As a freelance writer herself, she enjoys working with authors and helping them protect, enforce, and maximize the profitability of their intellectual property. When she is not representing clients, Cheryl enjoys writing, crocheting, volunteering at church and spending time with family and friends.  

Cheryl Lynn Black

Cheryl Lynn Black


Cheryl, what is the best way for a writer to protect their novels, articles, screenplays, etc. from plagiarism?

Copying the written expression of an author’s ideas, thoughts and opinions without giving credit to or obtaining permission from the original source without giving credit to the author or getting the author’s permission is nothing new. Fortunately, there are safeguards in place to help protect authors from plagiarism and copyright infringement.

Copyright law is designed to grant to authors the exclusive right to, among other things, copy, distribute, license, sell and display their work and to protect authors against unauthorized use of their work. Copyright protection goes into effect at the moment the author’s original work is in tangible form. However, a would-be plagiarizer or infringer may not be aware of these protections.

An author can do a few things to help prevent plagiarism and copyright infringement.

Include copyright notice on the work. Place the copyright symbol – © , date work was first published, and the name of the copyright owner visibly on the work. Notice should be place at or near the beginning of the work.

o Additional warnings about unauthorized use (language such as “All rights reserved.” Or “No part of this publication may be reproduced, photocopied, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission.”) may also be helpful.

o It may also be helpful to have contact information available for persons seeking copyright permission.

Ideally, one would hope that copyright notice and a simple warning would be sufficient enough to deter plagiarism and copyright infringement. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Ready access to information via the Internet makes it even more tempting to “borrow” other people’s creative works. Here are some additional steps to consider.

Timely registration of copyright can result in statutory damages, and attorney fees should you prevail in a law suit against a copyright infringer. You can register your copyrighted work with the United States Copyright Office.

• You can also register with online services that will police the Internet and notify you of plagiarism. An Internet search engine can help you find information on online services that protect against plagiarism.

Is it true that a writer can mail themselves a copy of the first page of their manuscript and the postmarked letter will act as their proof of copyright?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself, sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright,” does not prove copyright protection under copyright law. The best way to prove copyright ownership is to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.

As a blogger, are the articles we create online copyright protected?

Any literary or creative work that is original to the author and in fixed form is copyright protected, this includes online works. If your blog article includes content that originated from another source, then it may be necessary to obtain written permission from the copyright owner.

I read about a writer who said she has copyright information on all of her online articles. Can you tell us what she might have meant by that? Also, is that something you would recommend doing?

Providing copyright information means that the writer has included information pertaining to permissible use of her online articles. As the copyright owner, she may choose to grant certain permissions to her readers, such as the right to copy, transmit, and create hyperlinks to her articles without having to first obtain written permission. The copyright information may also expressly state what uses are unauthorized, what uses require written permission, and how to contact the author for such permissions.

You also asked whether I would recommend including copyright permissions for online articles. The following is a typical lawyer answer, but I’m entitled to at least one. Here it is: “it depends.” There are several factors to consider in granting advance permission to others to use your work, including how much and what type of use you will permit.

If a writer wants to quote a few lines from a song in one of their novels, does the writer need to obtain permission from the songwriter?

This would not be an interview on copyright law if it did not include a question regarding fair use. The fair use doctrine allows a person to use the copyrighted work of another without obtaining permission. Under U.S. Copyright law there are four factors that must be considered in determining whether a quote or excerpt of a person’s work falls within the fair use exception. They are:

1 The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

2 The nature of the copyrighted work;

3 The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

4 The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.

Although case law provides some guidance on the types of uses and the portion of the copyrighted work that may be permissible under the fair use doctrine, there is no specific word-count or fixed ratio for determining a fair use exception.

Rather than assume that quote or excerpt from a copyrighted work falls within the fair use exception, you may want to consult with an attorney. If you want to err on the side of caution, your safest bet is to obtain the copyright owner’s permission before quoting a portion of their work.

Should a writer obtain the copyright to their novels before sending them to a publisher?

Remember, copyright protection is automatic once the author writes their manuscript. Even an uncompleted manuscript is protected under copyright law. So then we will consider whether a writer should obtain copyright “registration” for their novel before sending it to a publisher.

The fear of copyright infringement is not uncommon among writers pitching their first or even subsequent novel. It is a legitimate concern, but how likely it is to happen depends on a number of factors, including how and to whom the manuscript will be submitted. While the unpublished novel is copyright protected, the author’s remedies in a copyright infringement suit are limited if the unpublished work is not registered or preregistered.

Having said that, it is worth noting a few things about:

 Registration of unpublished work

In order to register an unpublished work, you must deposit a copy of the uncompleted work to the U.S. Copyright Office. The registration would be limited to the work on file and not to any revisions or updates. The contents of the work on file would be public record.

 Preregistration of the unpublished work

Preregistration of the unpublished work does not require a deposit of the uncompleted work. However, you must include the title and a full description of the work. Preregistration preserves the rights and remedies available to registered works if you register the work within one month of learning of copyright infringement or within three months of first publication.

Is there a website where writers can find answers to their copyright questions?

The best website for writers to find answers to their copyright questions is the U.S. Copyright Office website: http://www.copyright.gov/.

As you know, Cheryl, this is a humorous storytelling blog and we believe in adding the spice of laughter whenever possible. With this in mind, could you tell us who your favorite Disney character is?

My favorite Disney character is Belle from Beauty and the Beast. I like Belle because she loved literature (How apropos!). She had a sense of adventure. She was willing to sacrifice her life for her father. She was not impressed by skin-deep beauty (Gaston), but was willing to wait for a beastly man.



This interview is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult an attorney about your specific copyright issues.





Related Posts:

Jo-Anne Vandermeulen on Blogging and Internet Promotion

What Can a Publicist Do For a Writer?

Tips for Getting Started With Book Promotion


5 Responses

  1. Wow! That’s a lot to consider.

    Great information, Cheryl & Sharon.

  2. Angie, I know exactly what you mean. There is a lot to consider indeed. Cheryl provided great information and insight.

  3. Great information! Thanks, Cheryl and Sharon! – Mary

  4. Mary, you are so welcome. I’m glad you found the information useful.

  5. […] Remember, copyright protection is automatic once the author writes their manuscript. Even an uncompleted manuscript is protected under copyright law. So then we… Read More » […]

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