01 Jan 2021

Confused By Copyright Law? Grasp These Basics To Stay Ahead of Trouble

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Make a Living as a Professional Self-Published AuthorAre you confused by copyright law? Well, join the club. It’s a convoluted, difficult subject. However, if you understand the basics concepts, you’ll do much better.

Copyright is a Federal law designed to protect the creative works of authors, designers, dancers, and artists. This law protects writings, art, sculpture, sound recordings, movies and films, graphics, architecture design, and even choreography. It does not matter if the work has been published or not, and there is no requirement, legally, to file a notice with the copyright office. The work is protected as soon as it is created. You do need to file with the copyright office before you can sue for infringement.

Note this article discusses copyright law in the United States specifically. For other countries the law may vary.

Specifically, what is a copyright? This is a law that gives the owners of creative works exclusive ownership and rights to those works and derivatives of them as well. Violations are NOT criminal acts; instead, they are tried in civil court. The intention is encourage creativity by giving the creator exclusive rights for their lifetime.

However, copyright law does not protect ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles or discovery. For example, if you wrote a book about a new method of building houses, the text and images in the book are protected by law. The method of building houses it not protected (but it could be covered by trade secrets, which is a whole different subject).

The Berne Convention provides copyright protection in many countries of the world. The laws vary from country to country, so you will need to examine the specifics for any country you are concerned about.

How To Copyright Your Writing

Confused by copyright law It's a complicated subject Know the basicsGenerally, it is a good idea to file a copy of your work with the copyright office of the country of publication. The U.S. Copyright office, which is a department of the Library of Congress, accepts submissions in the United States. Filing (in the United States) is completely optional unless there is a copyright infringement lawsuit.To file a copyright violation claim you must first file the copyright with the copyright office.

The author or creator of the work owns the copyright. If the work was created on a “work for hire” basis (as in ghostwriting), then the person who hired the creator is the owner. The owner has full rights over the work, including publication, modification, distribution, and selling. The copyright owner may authorize the work for other media. For example, if you write a book you can sell the movie rights to the work while retaining the rights on other media.

Derivative works are also protected by copyright. In other words, if you write an article and someone writes another article that is the same as yours with a few words changed, your copyright has been violated and you can file a lawsuit. A photograph which has been manipulated also violates copyright law, as does a YouTube clip which includes major scenes from a film. You can make “fair use” of part of copyrighted works as described later in this article.

You don’t have to include a notice that a work is copyrighted. However, it is a good idea to do so, as it demonstrates your claim. To note your rights, include a notice in the following format:

Copyright © [dates] by [author or owner]

For example:

Copyright © 2019 by Richard G Lowe Jr

The letter C in parenthesis is not the same as the symbol © and is not enforceable. Generally, the phrase “All Rights Reserved” is not needed in most countries in the world. In print, the notice is usually included in the manuscript. In photos and movies, it may be included in the actual image, video or as part of the metadata.

The article 10 Big Myths about copyright explained describes several myths on the subject and goes a long way to correct many of the misconceptions in this area.

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This video by Legal Eagle humorously uses a Simpsons episode to describe copyright laws.

What Is Fair Use?

An exception allowing use of copyrighted material is known as the Fair Use doctrine. What this means excerpts of a work may be copied if the use is “fair”. The law is deliberately vague, but generally you can use short quotes from a book, a thumbnail image of a photograph, or a few seconds from a movie . The concept is you can copy material from a copyrighted work in order to comment upon, criticize, or parody it.

Some examples of fair use include:

  • Quoting an author in a book review.
  • Including a few lines from a song in a review about a song or music in general.
  • Copying a paragraph or two for use in a lesson.
  • Summarizing a report for a news article.
  • Including a thumbnail of a photo in a review about that photo.

It is good form to include a citation naming your source whenever you include quotes or material.

For example, a parody ridicules another work in a comic way. A great example is the Everything wrong with series of movie reviews on YouTube. Works of this sort often use a great deal more material from the original.

YouTube uses artificial intelligence to scan videos and flag copyright violations. Other technologies exist to search throughout the web to find plagiarized works. Generally, these tools are available for a fee.

All authors must understand their rights and responsibilities under the law in order to ensure their works are protected, and that they don’t violate the rights of creative individuals. Stealing the works of another is called plagiarism; professionals do their best to ensure they cite all sources and ensure nothing has been inadvertently “borrowed” from somewhere else.

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Lindsey A Teske

How did the recent Supreme Court ruling change copyright law?

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