Copyrighting Your Work 101

Something we get asked about a lot is copyright.  As creators, we want to make sure our work is protected from intellectual property theft, and ensure that we control the publication, distribution and adaptation of what we’ve created. The problem is that copyright can be confusing and there are a lot of misconceptions about it. Hopefully, I can help clear some things up and give you some resources for more information on copyright if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Please note that this information is focused on copyright in the United States. For more information on International copyrights, please check out the links at the bottom of the post.

What is Copyright?

To begin with, I’m going to get the easy stuff out of the way. With a quick Google search, you can find the basics of what copyright is as well as in-depth discussion and even some analysis. As such, I am going to keep this as simple as possible. Copyright protects the rights of creators of literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works. Specifically, it gives the owner of the copyright the exclusive right to, and to authorize others the right to, reproduce, distribute, perform, or display the work. It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the law to copyright holders.

For more information on what copyright entails, check out the US Copyright Office’s Copyright Basics.

How Do I Protect My Work?

The good news is that a work is considered copyrighted as soon as you create it. So, as I’m typing these words, they are simultaneously copyrighted under the law. As a result, you don’t have to do anything beyond creating your work (which, sadly, is the hard part). However, holding a registered copyright is extremely helpful if you find yourself in litigation if you have to deal with a copyright violation. With a registered certification you will be given a certificate of registration, will be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation, and if the registration occurs within 5 years of publication, then it is considered prima facie evidence

The US Copyright Office now allows online registration of copyright, making the process even easier. Of course, you can still register using paper forms, but doing so is a little more expensive, and can take longer to process. Filing for registration online is $35, and you can get started here. If you choose to file online, then you can upload your work to the copyright office or mail copies to them.

Some people claim you can create a “poor man’s copyright” by mailing a copy of your work to yourself via certified mail (or another trackable system). However, copyright law does not cover this type of protection, and as a result does not confer the same protections as registering your copyright.

What Other Options Are There?

If you are interested in protecting your work in some ways, but want to allow others to build upon and share your work, then you may be interested in using a Creative Commons license in place of a standard copyright. Creative Commons works alongside copyright, and allows you to apply a series of free attributes to your work, which you can choose whether or not to use. The license options are Attribution, Share Alike, Noncommercial, and No Derivative Works.

By assigning Attribution to your work, you give others the right to copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work as long as they give credit the way you request. Share Alike allows others to distribute derivative works, but only under the same license you have assigned to your work. Noncommercial allows others to copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work as long as it is for noncommercial purposes. Finally, No Derivative Works allows others to copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work, but not derivative works. These licenses can be combined into six licenses, which are covered on the Creative Commons site.

There you have it, the basics of copyright. I hope this was helpful. If you are looking for more information on the subject, these links are a good place to start.

Where to Copyright – Global Copyright resources
10 Myths About Copyright by Brad Templeton (Chairman of the Board of the EFF)
Copyright Essentials For Writers By Holly Jahangiri

24 thoughts on “Copyrighting Your Work 101”

  1. Very helpful. I was just looking over a rather shady-looking legal site where they were quick to denounce the whole mail-it-to-yourself method but failed to detail the services of
    Also, I’m amazed at how pervasive the Creative Commons operation has become. Aren’t there any other services that compete in that area?

  2. Nazmul,
    Thank you, I’m glad to help.
    I’m sorry to hear about that experience. To my knowledge, Creative Commons is the primary alternative to standard copyright. I am not aware of any other alternatives that are anywhere near as prevalent. If anyone knows of any, please let me know.

  3. My comment is related, yet unrelated. It concerns the copyright page of any publication. It is standard practice to include the country where the book was printed. I assumed this to be the U.S.A., but when I received books printed by Lulu, the postmark was from New Zealand.
    Are the books indeed printed in New Zealand? Should I change the information on my copyright page? Does anyone know the answer to this?
    I tried to ask Lulu through their Support Center, but choosing a category seemed to be impossible.

  4. Hello, I have a couple of questions about the copyright. Firstly, when do I do the copyright and how do I add it to my book? and Secondly, How long does it last, is it 5 years?

  5. Hi,
    My question is I have written a medical teminology workbook/study guide for the allied healthcare students. It already has copyright/trademark, How do I publish this boo k myself andobtain an IsBN so I can market it to schools nationwide, and also have the ability to sell it on
    I have a hard copy of the study guide and found an inexpensive way to print the books, but I need an Isbn, what do you recommend??

  6. Patrick Moran

    If you are going to put anything out anywhere, it makes your legal position stronger when it comes time to sue if you put the standard copyright notice just after the title page, i.e., something like:
    (C) 2010 John Hancock
    Doing that is a necessity if you want to take the next step, which is registering with the government. Rather than mailing a copy to yourself so that it would hopefully have a readable date on it from the Post Office — and then remembering never to break the seal until you are before the judge — it would be more useful to prepare a statement describing the book and its copyright notice and a photograph of same printed onto the statement and then take that to a free Notary Public. The Notary Public would notarize his/her own acknowledgement of having seen the book and the copyright claim. Even then I’ll bet that some lawyers would try to find a way to argue with that evidence. If your book has commercial value, then you should pay the coyright fee. It’s cheap considering that it gives you protection for so many years.
    As to Creative Commons, if there are no alternative services it is probably because CC is free and they have done the legal work to formulate the license types so that they actually mean what they are intended to mean, and because nobody wants anything substantially different. What they do for people, according to my understanding, is to supply the legal lingo in an on-line source, so all the author has to do is specify the tag words in his/her work (CC tells you how to write it out) and that’s all there is to it.
    If anybody else wanted a different kind of license, then s/he could presumably do whatever CC does, perhaps including his/her own exceptions to the basic copyright protection. I think you will see this already in some books and magazines that say that the work may be reproduced for, e.g., educational purposes without fear of suit for copyright infringement.

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  8. I am working on publishing a book of poems and family stories my Mother wrote. I just want 100 copies for family and friends, do I have to have an ISBN number?

    1. Elizabeth,
      As an author on Lulu, you are in complete control over your work. You don’t need an ISBN at all if you don’t want one.

  9. Hi Nick,
    You’ve been a great source of information in the past, and I thank you. As a current customer of Lulu with 9 projects in the works, I would like to know if you can please assist me in finding my poems yet again…I logged in one day and all 300 you helped me locate before were still there – then when I came out of the hospital, they were all gone – with just my 9 projects sitting there. My account is fine, but my poems are gone. Can you please help me? I tried to talk to “support” who kept getting “disconnected”. This is my desperate effort at resolution…the poems I had listed and stored in my account were for the 9 projects I was publishing through Lulu. Please, please help. Thank you again.

  10. Can you provide a few examples of what the following statement in the Member Agreement means ?
    ” When you provide Content for publication or sale, you grant Lulu the nonexclusive right to post, display, copy, and sell that Content within the limitations you set during the online publishing process. ”
    For example, can I choose to stop publishing my book on at some point in the future ? Could I stop selling the first edition and put out a second edition through a different publisher ?
    Can I choose to increase or lower the margin charged on the book that I am selling at some point in the future ? Can lulu choose to increase the cost of publishing my book ?
    Presumably lulu’s cost for publishing a book will increase with time so that in (say) five years instead of costing $23 to print my book, it will cost $28. How is this increase calculated and what prevents lulu from “capturing” more of the profit from my book under the guise of “increased publishing costs”.
    Sorry about all the questions but I just wanted to be sure that I am interpreting the Member Agreement correctly.
    Thank you.

  11. I have a question. Say I were to create a book that contained 2 different shows on television, and I make the characters on each of the shows, my main characters. What would I have to do, to be able to publish a book like that?

    1. @Rana – this is a good question. You may need express permission from the copyright or trademark holder of the character. See this article for more information: If you are interested in producing Fan Fiction, this is not supported by Lulu:

  12. Alright, what if I were to write a book mentioning the T.V. show and just talk about it in and out of my book? Would I need any permission from the creator of the show to do so?

  13. Hi, I have a question regarding copyright terms. If I recieve permission to use another person’s character in my book, how would I have proof that they gave me permission and how would I write it inside of my book?

    1. @Mia – Hi Mia, Lulu doesn’t provide legal advice. As with all questions about book content, authors should be guided by what they see in the books on their personal bookshelves. We have often seen this type of proof of permission in an Acknowledgement section.
      This article may also provide some guidance:

  14. I have been reading the posts with interest from two perspectives , 1. I am about to self publish my first book and want to ensure my copyright is respected and 2. I am chairman of a digital software security company (Digiprove) who provide integrated and on-line protection which secures the provenance, integrity and authenticity of any digital content. Copyright proetction is one of the biggest applications of this technology. Its a freemium model and very low cost and is being integrated into many different digital business solutions. It overcomes the following issues 1. Do nothing , you own the copyright as you create it – OK this is true but can be difficult to prove unless you register the copyright in all geographies you are concerned with. 2. Registration with national copyright registrars is relatively very expensive compared to an on line service 3. Sending yourself a copy by registered mail and un opened is evidentially weaker when it comes to cour cases these days, envelopes can be smudged, or steamed open. It makes sense to preserve create value by digiproving content, the experience is that once there is an infringement, when real digital proof is presented cases are settled without the need for costly legal action

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