Top 10 Myths, Lies and Misinformation about Copyright

by Joel Friedlander on February 10, 2010 · 14 comments

I used to run into this kind of call a lot, years ago when I had my own little publishing company. An author would be on the phone talking about his book and why I should publish it. “And you don’t have to worry about the copyright either,” he’d say with confidence. “I mailed myself a copy and I’ve got it locked up in a safe!”

This myth was so old it seemed to have the weight of tradition on its side. No amount of talking would convince him the package in his safe was worthless as copyright protection, and that he had copyright in his work from the time he wrote it.

But that’s just one of the myths, lies and misinformation about copyright you can run into. How many of these have you heard?

Top 10 Myths, Lies and Misinformation about Copyright

  1. I didn’t see a copyright notice. It must not be copyrighted. Copyright occurs when the work is created. If you see no copyright notice, you can assume the work is protected. This has been the law in the United States since April 1, 1989, when we adopted the Berne Conventions.
  2. It has a copyright notice. It must be copyrighted. Publishers have been known to knowingly print a copyright notice in a work that was not eligible for copyright. Without specific information about the particular work, the notice itself isn’t enough to determine whether the work is protected. Be safe—assume it is.
  3. I only used part of it. I should be fine. “Fair Use” requires a test of four different elements to determine whether you have violated the creator’s copyright. Unless you are writing a review or engaged in satire, it’s likely you will need permission to quote from another person’s work.
  4. I had my nephew do it while he was working for me. Therefore, I own the copyright. If you can prove it was a work “made for hire” and have a contract to that effect, you may be right. Lacking an agreement or proof that you requested the work specifically, it could belong to your nephew.
  5. I didn’t charge any money for it, so it’s okay. Whether you profited from copying a protected work is secondary to the copying itself. That’s what’s illegal. You can still harm someone’s rights in a property by giving away unauthorized copies.
  6. If you post it on the internet, you put it into the public domain anyway. Since copyright begins when you create a work, you can only “put” something into the public domain by an actual statement to that effect. Posting it to a website—assuming it was posted by the copyright owner herself—does nothing to the rights of the creator of the work.
  7. I want to copyright the title of my book so nobody steals it. Titles cannot be copyrighted, nor can names. You can trademark a title or the name of an imprint, but that’s a different process requiring patent and trademark attorneys and several hundred dollars.
  8. I just used her characters and made up my own story. Unless you have specific permission from the author, you cannot create a work derived from someone else’s protected work. Rights to the characters and story belong to the originator.
  9. Copyright violations are just business. It’s not a crime. Copyright violations with over 10 copies involved, or valued at over $2500 are felonies.
  10. I’m actually spreading the work, it’s like marketing. They should thank me. If you don’t have the right to copy a protected work, it doesn’t matter how many reasons you can think up that the owner should be happy. You still don’t have the rights.

Copyright protects everyone who creates content of any kind. By protecting your rights to your own work, I’m protecting my rights at the same time. And that’s no lie.

For an extensive treatment of fair use, see the article by David L. Amkraut here. For more articles about copyright, see the Related Posts below.

Image: Stock.xchng / Tooheys

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 }

    Jacki January 17, 2013 at 11:51 am

    What about copyright statements for a work that was last published in 1890? I am working on a series of letters that were published in a serial manner in an obscure magazine and I am reprinting them verbatim. This will be the first time they have been printed in book form and I am adding a forward with biographical information about the letter writer. Since the main content of the work is in public domain, should the copyright statement be different?

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander January 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Jacki,

    You cannot copyright anything that’s in the public domain. You can copyright the forward and biographical information, and you can just say that in your copyright statement, like:

    “Forward and bibliographic information © 2013 by Jacki, all rights reserved”

    or something similar.

    Reply

    Elissa Malcohn March 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Hope — According to “Copyright Basics” at http://www.copyright.gov/circs/ — “Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created
    in fixed form.” That includes blog content, since that content can be printed. The statement also underlies the assertion that posting something online is akin to publication — see, for example, “Published is published!” http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides/advice/published-is-published (Some editors consider material posted online publicly to be “previously published,” while others do not.)

    As for the copyright symbol, “Copyright Basics” says, “The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U. S. law, although it is often beneficial.” I don’t use a copyright notice on my own blog, but I do use a Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/ These licenses let users assign and withhold different rights to intellectual property posted online, including websites, scholarship, music, film, photography, literature, and courseware.

    Another copyright myth people have is that registering their copyright automatically protects them from infringement. As I wrote in “Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave!” (Poets’ Forum Magazine, Summer 2007), “‘[R]egistration is not a condition of copyright protection,’ says the Copyright Office. However, copyright registration gives you certain legal advantages if infringement occurs.” That USCO quote also comes from Circular 1, “Copyright Basics.”

    Reply

    Hope March 13, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Thank you so much for all the great information!

    Reply

    Hope March 13, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    “Copyright occurs when the work is created.” So does that mean my blog content is automatically copyrighted? Or do I need to do something, like add the copyright symbol and register my blog somewhere?

    Reply

    Joel February 15, 2010 at 11:27 am

    Good point, Hamish. I was guilty of this “splattering” when I created the 21-page PDF download about file creation for LSI. I used a footer with the copyright statement (and a link to my blog) on every page. My concern in this case was pieces of the PDF being cut apart and distributed separately.

    And thanks for your kind words. I wrote this partly to have somewhere to direct people when they have questions about copyright, so I hope it does some good!

    Reply

    Hamish MacDonald February 15, 2010 at 3:35 am

    Thanks for these posts; it’s wonderful having a place to point people to for deeper answers to these common questions.

    Many of the points above are aimed at people who might unknowingly infringe on others’ rights; conversely, some people who’ve created original work have a bad habit of splattering copyright symbols throughout their pages like so much birdshot (or another, similar word).

    Rather than making their work serious and professional, as they seem to think it does, this reeks of amateurism — not to mention an implicit lack of trust in the person receiving the work, on par with a child scolding “Don’t copy me!”

    Just once in the front-matter does it! Your posts on what to include in the rights page should be put in front of every self-publisher.

    Reply

    Joel February 10, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Hey Walt and Sue, thanks for the comments. It looks like we’ve all been hearing these myths for a long time. Always good to go over the basics for a new generation. Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Sue Collier February 10, 2010 at 7:08 am

    Great article, Joel! I have run into this with clients so many times!

    Reply

    Walt Shiel February 10, 2010 at 6:56 am

    And don’t forget that old chestnut — “You can get the same protection as formal copyright registration by mailing a copy of the work to yourself and never opening it.” Also known as the “poor man’s copyright.”

    It is, of course, false…but we just can’t seem to kill it off.

    Reply

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