Understanding Rights and Copyright
by Moira Allen

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Two of the most common questions I hear are "How do I copyright my work?" and "How do I prevent editors from stealing my ideas?"

Copyrighting your work is probably the easiest part of writing, because your work is automatically protected the moment you write it down. You do not have to "register" a copyright for it to be valid.

If you're nervous, you can place a copyright notice on your material by putting the following information in the upper right corner of your document:

Copyright © 200X by (your name)

Drawing a circle by hand is acceptable, but substituting parentheses for the circle is not. If you can't reproduce the circle, don't worry; the word "copyright" alone is sufficient.

Such a notice is wise if you're handing out your work to friends and relatives or, perhaps, to a writer's group. Be aware, however, that some editors consider it a sign of amateurism (they already know your work is copyrighted).

For further protection, you can register unpublished works with the Copyright Office for a $45 fee. This ensures protection if you are involved in a copyright infringement suit. Such violations, however, are rare; you don't need to register just because you're sharing a story with a writer's group or submitting it for publication. However, you do have to register your copyright to be able to claim statutory damages in the event that you need to sue someone for copyright infringement. (If your work is not registered, you can claim "actual" damages, but not statutory damages.) In addition, the work must have been registered prior to such a suit.

Do Editors Steal Ideas?

We've all heard stories of writers who sent their manuscript to a magazine, got rejected, and then saw "an article just like it a month later." Usually this is a coincidence. As an editor, I often received multiple submissions on virtually identical topics. It is not uncommon for several writers to have the "same" idea -- which is one reason copyright does not protect ideas per se, but only the written expression of those ideas.

In addition, if you actually see a similar article "a month later," you can be certain that article was already on file long before yours arrived. Even if such an article appears many months after yours is rejected, that's still not evidence of foul play; an article may remain in an editor's files for months before being published.

Nor does "similar information" constitute a copyright infringement. Information is not covered by copyright, and it's not uncommon to see an article that contains information similar to your own. (Another article on rights and copyrights, for example, will contain information quite similar to this one.) Copyright protects only the specific expression of that information. Only if an article is directly copied (or contains so much identical content as to be clearly plagiarized) is it a violation.

Even if a copyright violation does occur, you may want to think twice about taking legal action. Legal action depends upon the "cost" of the infringement: If you can demonstrate a significant loss of income or reputation from the infringement, you may have grounds for a case. Otherwise, it's hardly worth the effort.

(For more information on this issue, see Will an Editor Steal My Ideas?

Copyright vs. Use Rights

Copyright refers to your right to claim ownership of a particular piece of "intellectual property." It also means that no one else can reproduce that work, sell it, or distribute it without your permission.

You have the ability to grant that permission, however, through "use rights." Licensing a "use right" does not affect your ownership of the copyright itself, unless you license away "all rights" or "work-for-hire" (see below).

Some publishers are under the mistaken impression that if they don't "buy" any rights, they aren't actually "using" them. This, however, is not true. As an author, you need to be aware that any publication of your material constitutes a transfer of rights.

Following are the rights most commonly offered by writers and acquired by periodical publishers (print and electronic):

Can You Protect Yourself?

Knowing your rights is the most important step you can take toward protecting your work in today's competitive marketplace. But can you do more?

Some writers' advocacy groups say that you can. Such groups recommend "boycotting" publications that insist on all-rights or work-for-hire contracts, or that demand ill-defined electronic rights or lump those rights under terms such as FNASR. If you're faced with such a contract, such groups suggest that you take your work elsewhere.

Unfortunately, such tactics have little effect. With thousands of freelance writers competing for the same markets, publications have no incentive to change policies just because one or two writers decide to go elsewhere. No editor is likely to lose sleep over the fact that you, or any other writer, is "boycotting" that publication.

What you can do is negotiate, as tactfully and firmly as possible. If an editor seems unclear on the definition of a particular rights clause, educate that editor -- but do so politely. If an editor claims that s/he is unable to alter a contract, don't assume it's a lie; in many cases contracts are developed by a publication's legal department. If you can't persuade an editor to change the contract, attempt to negotiate a higher fee, or a specific "exception" to the rights (e.g., the right to use certain portions of the material elsewhere in a non-competing market).

In the end, it becomes a matter of personal choice. In every contract decision, you must weigh what you stand to gain against what you stand to lose. Don't let another writer (or group) tell you what you must or must not do. Only you can determine what is best for you and your writing career.

For more information, see Writing-World.com's Rights and Copyright Links

Find Out More:

Copyright, Public Domain, and the Wild Wild Web, by Moira Allen

The Nitty-Gritty of Copyright, by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

Rights: What They Mean and Why They're Important, by Marg Gilks

Top Ten Questions About Copyright Permissions, by David Taylor

Will an Editor Steal Your Ideas? - Moira Allen

Copyright © 2007 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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