Self-Publishing Basics: A 5-Minute Guide to Copyright

by Joel Friedlander on October 8, 2009 · 15 comments

Well, we’re all busy and who has time to research copyright? This is the province of lawyers, big publishers with legal departments, and plagiarism trackers, isn’t it?

No, every self-publisher needs to have a bit of information on copyright and the way the law works in the United States. Okay, I promised this would take 5 minutes, so let’s get started.

Basic Copyright Information You Should Know

Copyright is a form of protection for intellectual property. It is based in the U.S. Constitution, and by law grants protection for original works fixed in any tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

You do not have to apply for copyright from any authority. The U.S. Government does not issue copyright. The law of copyright provides protection from others who might claim your work as their own, or seek to profit from your work without your permission.

When you create something original and fix it in some form that others can experience, (for instance, by writing a story that others can read, or painting a picture that others can view) your work is under copyright protection from the moment it is created.

Copyright protects original works of all kinds including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. It will protect a greeting card you wrote, and the song you’ve created for a school play.

Copyright Does Not Protect Everything

Copyright doesn’t protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation. However, it will protect a book or operating manual that explains these ideas, systems or methods.

As publishers it’s important to know that you cannot copyright the title of your book. If a title could be considered a trademark, you can use the trademark system to attempt to protect your title, but it will be an expensive, lengthy and uncertain process, and you may well be denied trademark protection.

A Few Copyright Questions

How is Copyright Different From Patent or Trademark? Copyright protects original works of authorship. Patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs that identify goods or services. The Fedex logo is a registered trademark, which provides protection. It is not copyrightable.

What is Copyright Registration? There is no requirement to register your copyright, which exists from the moment the work is created. Registration is a service provided by the Library of Congress as a means to record claims to copyright. If you ever have a dispute about your copyrighted work, your best evidence is going to be the registration you made, and the date it was entered, to show you are the originator of the work.

You definitely want to register your copyright, even though it isn’t required.

  • Copyright registration will put the facts of your copyright into the public record
  • You will receive a certificate of registration
  • In the event of litigation, your registered work may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees
  • If you register your copyright within 5 years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence (self-evident from the registration) in a court of law

Can’t You Just Mail Your Manuscript to Yourself? This practice has been used for many years as kind of a “poor man’s copyright.” Unfortunately, there is no provision in the copyright law for any such protection—it is not a substitute for registration.

Is My Copyright Good Outside the United States? The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, we honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. However, the United States does not have such copyright relationships with every country. For a listing of countries and the nature of their copyright relations with the United States, see Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States.

Well, there you have it. Considering the amount of time, effort and imagination you’ve put into your book, it makes sense to take the simple step of registering your copyright. Like putting a category on the back cover of your book, or getting your ISBN correct, this is another detail that self-publishers just have to attend to.

In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss the rather thorny issue of fair use. In the meantime, if you have copyright questions it’s best to consult an attorney, and I am not an attorney. For more detailed information on copyright, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website.

Self-Publisher's-Quick-Easy-Guide-CopyrightWant to know more about copyright? Need some sample copyright pages to drop into your book? Confused about the things you read online about copyright? Check out this 30-page easy-to-read guide. Click The Self-Publisher’s Quick & Easy Guide to Copyright for more info, or Buy Now as PDF or Kindle.

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    { 10 comments… read them below or add one }

    C. Parker September 26, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    I am just about to finish the final draft of a self-help book (a book of Testimonies). What if any, ideas do you have to protect me and my religious views against those who oppose me? Does this type of book need to be protected by a copyright also? What exactly is an ISBN?


    Nick Rhodes July 14, 2015 at 7:26 am

    I’m working on republishing a series of 4 books which are out of print.
    Do I need consent from anyone other than the copyright holder?

    I’m recreating them from hard copies so will I have joint copyright of the new edition?

    The front of the old volumes states;

    ©1985 Morio Higaonna
    All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form without the written permission of the publisher.

    Thanks in advance for any advice.

    Nick Rhodes


    Pedro J Alava June 3, 2015 at 6:28 am

    I have finished writing my 2nd book, its title is “Disenando riego para espacios verdes y campos deportivos profesionalmente” . it is in Spanish technical book addressed to Hispanic customers. As a matter of fact, I have used Charts and graph from other technical books but the way of expressing my technical approach and steps are different and based upon my professional experience.
    Could I register it ?
    What recommendation could you give me.
    Thanks in advance


    Zhanna April 22, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    I created a tanager fantasy book. Would like to copyright it, publish it and online publish it. How I supossed to start? Thank you


    Steve July 17, 2012 at 1:36 am

    I live in a European country and want to copyright an eBook. I’m having a hard time finding advice on copyrighting books outside the United States. Can you help me? Thanks.


    Joel Friedlander July 17, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Steve, which country?


    admin November 5, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Hey David,

    Thanks for your comment. Not sure if you are offering word processing services, or needing word processing services. I do know people who work with Word. Let me know how I can help!


    David Keller November 5, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    1 – I have an idea for your website.
    2- Subject: Do you know a low cost word processor??

    Maybe a student ?
    Need to fold in changes from one WORD doc into another WORD doc and WP should know how to work with WORD tables.
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    You can call or email me. Thank you.


    admin October 9, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Thanks, @BookWhirl, your support is much appreciated. Copyright is just one of those things you have to know about when you go into publishing, so I hope this helps.

    Reply October 8, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Very informative post! Thank you for sharing basic and important points about copyrights. All self-published authors must at least be familiar on dealing with copyright matters. I’ll definitely bookmark this article! Keep on writing, we believe in you–always.

    Sincerely, | You have the book…We have the Marketing Resources.


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