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Copyright

Chris Holifield

Copyright has evolved over the centuries to protect rights in intellectual property. It provides a basis for trading in these rights and a means whereby they can be exploited commercially. Rights holders are able to license the rights in their work to be exploited in different ways (e.g. in book form or to be made into a film) and also in different territories, in a system of exclusive sublicensing.

How long does copyright last?

Since 1996 the UK term of copyright has been brought into line with other European countries, thus increasing it from 50 years to 70 years after the end of the year in which the author died. In the US it is the same and most EU countries have 50 years from the author’s death, following the Berne Convention. There are exceptions and detailed information is available from a useful page supplied by Online Books. In the case of copyright held by a company or institution, this period runs from the end of the year of first publication.

Retaining your copyright

Unless there is a very good reason, authors should in general seek to retain copyright in what they write. The most obvious exceptions are if a writer is employed by a newspaper, journal or company, when the writer is producing the work as part of their job. In some instances commissioned work for books is not copyright to the author, but this should be made clear at the outset and is one of the clear disadvantages of working to commission.

Copyright and royalties

Copyright has no necessary relationship to royalties, so a writer may retain the copyright in their work without receiving royalties from it. Similarly, royalties may be paid on work which is not the author's copyright , although this is probably relatively rare.

Piracy

It is not unknown for an author, or more often their publisher, to have to take legal action in protection of their copyright, but on the whole copyright is respected. The exception is in countries where book pirates operate. It can be a very lucrative to print a cheap edition of a book which is heavily in demand and then to sell it. The pirates have not borne any of the origination costs and will not pay any royalties from their illegal edition to the author. India is an example of a country where the pirates have run rampant, but various anti-piracy measures put in place over the years are beginning to change this. China, with all the changes, is still a problem in this respect.

Copyright under pressure

In the four years since the first version of this article was written, copyright has come increasingly under threat. This is largely because of the feeling that everything on the Internet should be free. It's an attractive idea to many, but it does not allow those who create content to get remunerated for their work. Publishers and writers are not therefore being finicky tightwads when they insist that the copyright in authors' work must be protected.  Having said that, it does not look as if DRM (or digital rights management), which seeks to protect a file from being copied or stolen, is very effective.  The jury is therefore still out on how this will be resolved.

Protecting your copyright

Many writers worry about losing their copyright. Before sending out your manuscript it is always advisable to put a copyright line consisting of the copyright sign ©, the year and your name on the title page. It is difficult to be absolutely sure that your work will not be stolen or plagiarised, but in general these fears are groundless. Given how difficult it is to get it published, you should ask yourself why anyone would be trying to steal your work.

However, if you are still feeling nervous, there are some other precautions you can take, not so much to prevent this happening as to establish your copyright, so that you have strengthened your position if it is infringed.

  • Post a copy of your manuscript to yourself and then keep it in the date-stamped envelope.
  • Post it to your solicitor or some other reliable (and perhaps cheaper) person, with a covering note which will establish the date when you did so.
  • Get it published, which will fairly safely establish your copyright.
  • If you have submitted the manuscript to WritersServices we will have a record of when it arrived, thus establishing that it existed before that date.

 

Chris Holifield

 



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