In this age of the Internet with digital information accessible with a single click, copyrights are sometimes left in tatters by the side of the road. Just because you can cut and paste information doesn’t make it legal to use it. Unless, of course, it falls within fair use and is properly cited. Ditto to adding music to the really cool slide show you created with photos you found on some website. Unless, of course, you wrote the music and those photos are your own and taken from your own Flickr account.
What is protected? Copyright laws (which in the U.S. date back to the original Constitution) protect the expression of an idea in a fixed form. It’s important to note that it’s the expression of the idea that is protected. An idea cannot be copyrighted. That expression can be prose, poetry, lyrics, music, computer code, drawings, architectural renderings, artwork, sound recordings and sculpture… just to name a few.
When is it protected? The moment it is created and fixed in tangible form. When you save the story you wrote to your hard drive or when you jot the notes of the next great musical hit on the back of an old envelope, your work is protected from that point on. If the words and music are simply rattling around in your head, it’s not protected since that format constitutes an idea.
What about registration? Registering your masterpiece with the Library of Congress is optional. You are protected whether or not the work is registered. However, if you wish to bring a legal action in the case of an infringement, the work must be registered. And only registered works are eligible for statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in the case of successful litigations.
What is fair use? The copyright law includes a doctrine that allows for portions of a copyrighted work to be used without permission “for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports.” The definition is very nebulous and takes into consideration whether the use is commercial or non-profit, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount used and its relationship to the whole work, and the effect on the potential market and earnings potential of the work. (For the full story, please refer to Copyright Office’s FL-102 reference.)
What about work made for hire? The creator of the work is typically the author and the one whose interests are protected by copyright, with one big exception – work made for hire. When, for example, something is written as a paid assignment, contracted by another person, the copyright conveys to the contractor (i.e. the one writing the check). If an employer assigns an employee to write an article, the employer holds the copyright. I hold the copyright for authoring this blog entry; however, when you hire me to write for you (whether it’s a blog or a full-length book), you hold the copyright and are the only one who can dictate reprints and derivative works. Be certain that any writer you hire is fully aware of that stipulation! (And as a side-bar note, any ghostwritten works you might find in my portfolio are there with permission.)
If you’ve had a great idea for a book but can’t find the time to put it in “tangible form,” contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org or 484-769-8897), so we can get your masterpiece underway and out of your head.