As a writer, you need to know where you stand as regards the copyright in your work. So let’s look at some of the most important issues surrounding copyright.
First of all, what is copyright?
Quite simply, copyright is your legal right to be identified as the writer of your work (it also applies to photos and artwork etc.) and the right to benefit from the exploitation of that work, eg. publishing it.
Strictly to qualify for copyright your work should be regarded as original, and exhibit a degree of labour, skill or judgement. Note that mere ideas (even good ones!) are not copyright.
How do you establish copyright …. and how long does it last?
Copyright in a piece of writing work automatically exists and belongs to the writer the minute it is written. It lasts until 70 years after the writer’s death (not 70 years after the work was written).
One important exception: If you write something in the course of your job the copyright will normally belong to your employer, not to you.
There is no requirement to mark your work with a copyright notice, although you can do so if you wish. The internationally recognised copyright symbol – © – followed by your name is perfectly adequate.
Registering your copyright
In the UK (check if elsewhere) you don’t need to register your copyright, and indeed there is no official ‘copyright registration office’ where you can do this.
Some people suggest mailing a copy of your work to yourself using registered mail and keeping the unopened envelope should you need to prove in future that you wrote the work. (Legally it is probably pointless however. What’s to say you didn’t mail yourself an empty envelope and seal it later?)
If you are the publisher of your book – that is the publisher, not just the author – you are legally required to send copies of your book to the various copyright deposit libraries in the UK. The legal deposit office of the British Library can provide more information on this.
Publishers and copyrights
It’s worth noting that when a publisher publishes your work and pays you a fee or a royalty for it the copyright stays with you. Your publisher is merely paying for the right to publish your work. Publishing contracts will not normally expect you to give the publisher copyright. Although – if you wish to – you can sell or assign your copyright to a publisher or anyone else for a fee.
Should you find this has happened it’s best to take professional advice on the most appropriate course of action. In reality though, it’s pretty unlikely that anyone will copy your copyright work.
Bear in mind that ‘fair dealing’ rules allow others to copy short pieces of your work for study, teaching, criticism and review – so long as they quote their source. And, in fact, having your work used or shared in this way can be very good publicity for your services as a writer.