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Copyright law

WritersServices Self-publishing

Your Copyright

Copyright laws vary throughout the world. This article will concentrate on explaining the copyright situation in the UK and the EC.

This is about your rights – don't forget to check the notes about others' rights.

  • The copyright in your work automatically belongs to you as soon as you write something down. Unlike trademarks, you do not lose or weaken your copyright if you fail to defend it
  • In the UK it used to last for 50 years, but now, under EC law, it lasts for 70 years after the end of the calendar year of the author’s death.
  • You do not generally have copyright in anything you write as part of your employment. For instance, if you are employed to write TV scripts, or if you are a journalist, your employer will claim copyright in everything you write. The National Union of JournalistsRepresents British journalists and photographers. Has a useful list of links to media resources. site links to a NUJ freelance fees site in the UK strongly urges its members to fight to retain copyright in their work. In practice, this can be difficult
  • There is no copyright in ideas but once you write them down you at least own the expression of the idea. You can try to get anyone to whom you are submitting an idea to sign a document to the effect that they will not use it or pass it on to anyone else. In practice it is really difficult to get anyone to sign, except for commercial or technical non-disclosure agreements which normally have a short time limit
  • Piracy costs authors vast amounts of money in lost royalties. The Writer’s Handbook (2001) reckoned that the loss of income in Russia, China and various small nations deprived British publishers and their authors of £200 million a year.
  • Photocopying is claimed by the same source to be responsible for around 300 billion pages of illegally reproduced material. In the UK the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society

    The British rights management society for all writers. A non-profit organisation owned by writers. Membership costs £5 and you have to register (not join) to receive payments. The Society takes commission to cover costs. It collects and distributes fees for writers whose work has been copied, broadcast or recorded and also works on industry-wide solutions to problems such as digital rights management.

    (ALCS) has set up agreements which ensure that authors do get income from photocopying.
  • There is no copyright in titles, although you may well be sued for ‘passing off’ if you decide to call your book Gone with the Wind or even The Wind Done Gone.
  • Moral rights cover the right of paternity (entitling authors to be credited as the creator of their work) and integrity (which means that your work cannot be savaged without your agreement.)
  • There is the more general issue which you can explore.
  • For more Information about Copyright try

How can you protect your copyright? 

  • Put a copyright notice on your manuscript. It should say Copyright (year) by (name or owner).It is not strictly necessary but it is still widely practised.
  • Under the Berne Copyright Convention, if you can show you created the work you automatically have copyright. The phrase 'All rights reserved' is no longer required.
  • You could post a copy of your manuscript to yourself and keep this, unopened. If there is ever any dispute, the postmark will prove that you wrote the manuscript by a certain date provided you can show that the seal has not been broken etc.
  • Computers date stamp files but these can be falsified by altering the date on the computer
  • Store a copy of the work with your solicitor or bank, using a dated receipt to prove when you wrote it. However, they will charge for this service.
  • Check your contract carefully to make sure that you are not inadvertently giving away your copyright. Once you have done this, it will be lost for good.
  • The Library of Congress

    The national library of the United States, which offers a massive amount of information easily available, including details about copyright registration.

    , Copyright Office, Register of Copyrights, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20559-6000 maintains a copyright library and a fee of $30 is payable for each deposit. But deposit is optional.
  • If your book is published in the UK or Ireland make sure you make the legal deposits required.

Public Domain

  • You cannot assume anything is in the public domain unless there is an explicit notice to that effect.
  • If you are tempted to donate something to the public domain remember that someone could then change a few words and claim the copyright
  • If something is in the public domain, it can even be used by others for commercial purposes
  • Reserve your rights even if you are willing to let people copy and distribute your work.

Creative Commons

There is another way to assert copyrights which recognise that the Internet is used for research. We have an informative article about Creative Commons licensing.

"Creative Commons provides a suite of licenses that can be used to proclaim extended permissions on the internet in a way that protects the author’s copyright while allowing maximum flexibility to reach readers in the digital age. CC was devised by Stanford law professor, Lawrence Lessig, and colleagues who were concerned that initial reactions to the Web from the commercial sector were to lock down copyrighted materials causing a reduction in access rather than embracing the new opportunities with new business models."

Creative Commons website

Fair use

  • Fair use is an exemption to copyright law. You can quote from copyrighted works for the purpose of review, research, education, news and even parody or commentary without permission.
  • Damage to the commercial interest of the copyright holder is the likely test of whether the use is judged to be fair or not.
  • Your intent in using the copyright material will be important. Context will be vital.
  • A useful resource is available on the Stanford University site.
  • There are now powerful search services able to detect plagiarism and unacceptable recycling of the material produced by others

Interviews and reporting what people say

Interviews provide an interesting problem for copyright law. Does the interviewer or the subject own the copyright? The law is moving towards recognising the copyright of both parties as a joint project.

A few tips on handling an interview:

  • The interview must be 'fixed'. This is a requirement under US federal copyright law. This means that verbatim notes or a recording are important. Writing it up from memory would not qualify.
  • The interviewer might be able to reserve certain parts of an interview provided they make any reservation clear. If you are interviewing a celebrity, be aware that the interviewer might also own the copyright to 'catch phrases'.
  • The interviewer should, ideally, obtain written consent from the interviewee for conducting and publishing the interview and note the scope of the consent granted. Make sure that the consent is recorded.
  • If you tell them, and record, what you plan to do with the material, it would be hard for them to claim any copyright later. So resolve issues of copyright ownership in a written agreement.

Remember that in many cases assigning the copyright is part of your publishing deal, particularly if it is a commissioned piece. NEVER give away your copyright without understanding clearly what you are doing.

Most infringements are civil matters but in an attempt to stop commercial piracy there is a trend to make breach of copyright a criminal offence.  

If you feel that WritersServices has infringed your copyright, check out our procedures for dealing with this.

Clearing copyright  Getting permission Model release


last updated 10/2006