Copyright basics for writers: What is copyright?

One of my Afternoon Tea subscribers noticed that I hadn’t set up a copyright notice since I changed my blog theme. She’s been reading my short stories and encouraged me to take care of the copyright business right away.

That got me thinking about content theft, the bane of internet writing. It’s tough to prevent. By adding a copyright notice, I hope to deter the theft as well as let readers know that I take my writing seriously.

When the time comes for a piece of my work to be published — and that is my goal — I don’t want to be ignorant about U.S. copyright laws. Book contract negotiations include copyright terms. So, I took the time to wade through the various sections of the Copyright office’s Copyright Basics pamphlet. I’ve presented them here in brief summary as something to store in your writer’s toolbox. I’ll share what I learned in two posts:

  1. What is Copyright?
  2. The Copyright Registration Process

You can find links to these posts on my Writer’s Toolbox page for future reference.

You may want to register your work now or simply be ready when you have a publishing contract in your hands. Either way, it is important for writers to be familiar with the Copyright law.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided to writers by the laws of the United States. It protects the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works, and gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to do (and to authorize others to do) the following:

  • To reproduce the work in copies;
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
  • To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
  • To perform the work publicly;
  • To display the work publicly.

It’s illegal for anyone to violate these rights specified in the law, though there are some limitations (“fair use” and “compulsory license”).

Copyright is different from trademark (brand name) and patent (ideas).

Who Can Claim Copyright?

The author who created the work immediately becomes owner of a work created in fixed form. That author is the only one who can rightfully claim copyright. However, those deriving their rights through the author can also claim copyright.

What Works Are Protected?

Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are “fixed in a tangible form of expression” and communicated with the aid of a machine or device. In other words, it protects your creative expression that is in tangible form (e.g., books  and e-books).

Besides literary works, copyrightable works include:

  1. musical works, including any accompanying words
  2. dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  3. pantomimes and choreographic works
  4. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  5. motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  6. sound recordings
  7. architectural works


How to Secure a Copyright

The Copyright office finds this area to be often misunderstood. There is no registration, publication, or any other action that needs to take place to secure copyright. The Office, however, points out that there are advantages to registration. Copyright is automatic as soon as you create your work, where “create” means it is fixed in copies for the first time. “Copies” is defined as material objects from which a work is read or visually perceived either directly or with the aid of machines or devices (e.g., books, manuscripts).

Notice of Copyright

Authors are no longer required under U.S. law to use a copyright notice, although it is beneficial. The use of the notice lets the public know that the work is protected by federal law, it identifies the copyright owner, and shows the year of first publication. If that work is infringed, and a notice of copyright appears on the published copy, then the thief cannot  claim “I didn’t know.” It’s the responsibility of the copyright owner to use the notice, and there’s no need to obtain permission from or register with the Copyright Office to do so.

The Three Elements of the Copyright Notice

The notice should contain these three elements:

  1. The symbol © (the letter C in a circle), or the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”; and
  2. The year of first publication of the work; and
  3. The name of the owner of copyright in the work.

For example: © 2012 Darla McDavid

The “C in a circle” notice is used only on “visually perceptible copies.”

When a literary work is not fixed in copies but by means of sound in an audio recording, its copyright symbol is different. The symbol used for sound recordings contains these three elements:

  1. The symbol ℗ (the letter P in a circle); and
  2. The year of first publication of the sound recording; and
  3. The name of the owner of copyright in the sound recording.

Example: ℗ 2012 Darla McDavid Records Inc.


There you have it: a brief introduction to copyright basics for your reference. I hope you found this summary to be helpful. In a future post, I’ll share the process of registering your work with the Copyright Office. Down the road I’ll show you how copyright terms look in a book publishing contract.

If you’d like the full text of the Copyright Office’s Copyright Basics, you can download the PDF here.

Copyright Office website

Question: How are you using the copyright notice in your current work?


4 thoughts on “Copyright basics for writers: What is copyright?

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