28 Jan FAQ: Intellectual Property for Authors
In my intellectual property practice, I see quite a few authors who are worried about protecting their writings. I get a lot of questions about how best to protect works, both published and unpublished, completed and in draft form. In this article, I have gathered these frequently asked questions together to provide a snapshot of what authors need to know about intellectual property.
What protections are available for my published works?
For written works, copyright is the relevant protection provided by intellectual property law. A copyright is the legal ownership of an original work and the right to reproduce, share, and sell that work. Classically, copyright is used to describe literary works, visual art, photography, and other such creations. Under common law, the creator of a work owns the copyright automatically. However, this common law copyright is fairly difficult to enforce. Registering the copyright is the best way to gain additional legal protections for your writing and be able to enforce your copyright. We discuss the benefits of copyright registration below.
Can I still protect my writings even if I haven’t published (or if I self-published)?
As mentioned in the previous question, a work is protected by common law copyright protections as soon as you begin to write. Because copyright law is dependant on your authorship, rather than any contractual relationship with a publisher, it is not necessary for you to have published a book before it gains copyright protections. Self-publishing is exactly the same. Because you wrote the work, you own the copyright.
Unlike published works, unpublished works can be registered for copyright as a collection. Once a work has been published, it can only be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in the form in which it was published (one publication per application). However, unpublished works can be grouped into a collection and registered under one application.
What about intellectual property protections for my draft writings? My book is unfinished, but I still want my work protected!
Yes! Even draft writings are protected. As soon as you put pen to paper (or begin typing words in a document, more likely), your original authorship is protected by common law copyright. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve written. That half of a chapter shoved into the back of a drawer in college? You own the copyright, and that means you also own the exclusive right to reproduce and sell it, as well as the right to create derivative works related to it.
Do I really need to register my copyright with the USCO?
We have alluded to this in earlier questions, but now let’s dive in. Why do you need to register your copyright? Because doing so creates a public record of your authorship. Think of this scenario: you are reading a book in a bookstore and slowly realize, I wrote this. What do you do? If you haven’t registered your copyright, you cannot bring a suit to enforce your copyright. That’s right. Even if you do have an automatic, common law copyright to all of your written works, you cannot enforce them in a court of law unless they have been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
How do I register the copyright to my book?
First, visit copyright.gov, the official United States Copyright Office portal. To register a copyright, you must submit an application form and a copy of the work you wish to register. There is an application fee (ranging from $55 for basic claims filed electronically and $85 for basic claims using paper forms), and the copy of the work you submit will not be returned to you. There is the option to register using an online application, and an electronic version of your work can be attached. However, even if you register online, you will have to send a hard copy of your work (called the “best edition”) to the Library of Congress.
Do I have to re-register my copyright if I make changes to my work?
In general, editorial or minor changes will not alter your copyright protection. However, if you make “substantial and creative” changes to a work, you will need to register a new copyright for the amended version.
How do I protect my writings that are available online?
In the literary world, stealing words is a big “no-no.” The majority of professional writers will go above and beyond to ensure that their own work is original and not the intellectual property of anyone else. However, the internet has a bit of the Wild West about it. Of course, our first suggestion is always to ensure that your copyright is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Beyond that, you can have an attorney or agent run occasional screens for you to ensure that your work is not being reproduced without permission online. There is a fine line between sharing content and overstepping intellectual property protections. If you are concerned about your work being shared without permission online, seek the assistance of an experienced intellectual property attorney.
You may also choose to use technology to protect your work. Check out our blog post about how blockchain is being used to protect intellectual property online.
What happens to my writings when I die? Who will own the rights to my written works?
Like anything else you own, your copyrights are considered assets. When you die, your copyrights will be included in the assets that pass with your estate to your heirs. If you want to ensure that your copyright ownership passes to specific individuals, or if you want to place restrictions on how your work can be reproduced, used, and sold, you will likely want to consult with an estate planning attorney to memorialize your wishes and ensure they are carried out. Copyright protections extend for 70 years after the author’s death. That means, throughout your lifetime, you will own the exclusive right to use, distribute, and reproduce your copyrighted materials. This exclusivity, however, will only extend an additional 70 years after your death. To learn more about incorporating your copyrighted material into your estate plan, check out our blog.
Consult with an Experienced Intellectual Property Attorney
At The Brand Protected ®, our primary focus is on helping our clients protect their creative works. We do this through brand development, of course, but many of our clients are also original authors. To learn more about protecting your written material (and to pass copyright ownership on to your loved ones), click here to schedule a consultation with us!