On one level, the issue of copyrights is pretty straight forward, at least in the United States. If you wrote it, recorded it, drew it or otherwise created it, you own it. No one has the right to use it in any form without your permission.
Conversely, you don’t have the right to use the creations of anyone else unless they give you permission. If you keep these principles in mind, you’ll rarely have to get into the details.
You Can’t Copyright an Idea
Probably the biggest confusion about copyrights among writers is the notion that somehow it’s possible to protect an idea. It can’t be done, at least not with a copyright. A copyright only protects your expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Ideas are up for grabs.
You can’t copyright titles either, which is why you see duplicate book titles. Usually this isn’t a problem, but it’s always worth checking before you lock into a title for your book or ebook.
That said, there are all sorts of weird and wonderful details. That, coupled with the fact that we’re all dealing in a global market place with the internet, makes it even more difficult because the copyright laws vary from country to country.
Where You Live and Write
According the my web stats, most of my readers are in the United States. But I have a significant number in Canada and the United Kingdom, plus a scattering Australia, New Zealand, India, etc. etc. etc. Each country has its own copyright laws. Where you live and write determines which copyright law you’re working under.
The easiest way to find out the copyright law in your country is to google it.
You Don’t Need To File for a Copyright in the U.S. and Canada
In the U.S. and Canada, the copyright is assumed. If you write something there’s an unofficial, but enforceable copyright on your work.
That said, in all cases, you have to be able to prove you wrote it if you want to defend it. In the U.S. you can add a copyright symbol to your work along with your name and the year which puts people on notice that you are at least aware of your rights.
In the U.S. we have something called “fair use.” The purpose is to allow the public to use portions of copyrighted material for the purposes of criticism and commentary. Most often this is seen as quotes in book reviews. How much you can copy is not clear. It’s generally considered that it should be no more than necessary to make the point you’re trying to make. You can see how squishy this can get.
The guide I use is to ask myself how I’d feel if I’d written the part I’m copying; if I’d feel okay, I go ahead; if I think I’m taking too many liberties, I reduce the quote. And I’m always careful to attribute the quote.
Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide
You know, in your heart, if you’re using something legitimately or not. Assume there is a copyright and honor it. When in doubt, check the rules. Always give attributions freely – they will only enhance your work.
Some Useful Links
- Copyright Issues and Answers at Poynter
- Frequently Asked Questions about Copyright – from the U.S. Copyright Office
- The Educator’s Guide to Copyright and Fair Use