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Copyrights and Wrongs for Freelance Writers

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.

Fair Use

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.

Two Useful Links

Do you have questions about copyrights? Ask me; I’ll try

Write well and often,

Two newsletters:
Abundant Freelance Writing – a resource for freelance writers including 3x a week job postings.
Writing With Vision – for those who want to get a book written.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Mark

    “shoul” = “should”

    Again, please excuse my typos.

  • Mark

    Ooops! a couple of typos on my part. My apologies. First, a comma shoul be placed after “a professor” to offset it from the rest of the sentence. Secondly, “copyright own” should be “copyright owner“.

    My mistake. Medical issues involving lightheadedness have contributed to this. Again, my apologies.


  • Mark


    Sorry if this seems a bit late. I received this delivery in my inbox today.

    First off, for the sake of clarification, I am a professional freelance writer with experience as an editor on diverse publications. I am also a creative writer who is working on various projects, including two novels and a number of short stories. I possess a B.A. and a graduate in English with a concentration in academic and creative writing as well as linguistics and Spanish translation.

    As for song titles, their inclusion in a work is not copyright infringement. Lyrics, however, are because those particular lyrics are part of an artist’s creation. Yes, the title is, too, but it itself is not actually part of the creation, per se. It’s tricky. In any case, a few people, including a professor shared this perspective with me: titles are okay; lyrics require permission. Attribution to an author or copyright own should be made to be safe.

    I have a query of my own which no one seems to have a definite answer: When it comes to freelance writing, what is the appropriate means for including sold works in a portfolio? I have worked through a number of writing angencies with clients (many whose identities have been unknown) for whom I have anonymously done work. I could attribute these works to the appropriate clients, but, as said, I don’t know their identities. One client did give me her permission. What about the rest? How are these experiences usually documents or presented in a professional portfolio, especially one that is online, such as a professional website? I am putting mine together now (haven’t had time before), but I have been hesitant. All comments are welcome. Thank you.


    • Anne

      Mark, I’m going to attempt to answer this as a Q&A – but not today, or at least not right now.

      btw, typos allowed here 😉

  • erica

    do i need any type of permission to use the name of an actual hotel, street or bar in the actual city i’m writting about? which copyright act or other in the law sould i refer to? any othe websites on the subject are also welcome. thank you for your time.

  • David Ind

    I have a question I have just sent off a short story for publiction.
    In the story I have used the song ‘You aint seen nothin yet’ as a mobile phone tone in the story.
    Have done anything wrong as regard to the copyright law?

    • Anne

      David, is that a song title? I think so and titles aren’t copyrightable – at least in books, articles, etc. I doubt you’re in trouble. Anyone else know for sure?

  • admin

    glad it works for you Heidi

  • Thanks Anne, that’s a great post! I appreciate you putting all that information in one spot clearly where I can find it.


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