Copyright in writing

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Copyright is an important issue that all writers need to familiarise themselves with, for their own protection.

Copyright applies to many different forms of creativity, but we are primarily interested here in how it applies to written works: also referred to as literary works.

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Copyright is a form of legal protection for the creator of a written literary work.

In general, it affords the creator exclusive rights to (or rights to authorise someone else to):

  • reproduce the work
  • derive new work based upon the original
  • distribute, sell, rent, lease or lend copies of the work
  • perform the work (in the case of theatrical plays, screenplays, songs etc).

It is therefore generally an infringement of the copyright of a literary work to do any of these things (and more) without the written permission of the copyright owner.

In this case, copyright applies to ‘original’ written works. This may include books, novels, instruction manuals, song lyrics or even newspaper articles. Copyright does not apply to names, slogans, titles or individual phrases. These may, however, be trademarked, which is different to copyrighting.

The United Kingdom Patent Office defines an ‘original’ work:

A work can only be original if it is the result of independent creative effort. It will not be original if it has been copied from something that already exists. If it is similar to something that already exists but there has been no copying from the existing work either directly or indirectly, then it may be original.

The USA has similar definitions which should be checked if more relevant to you. All countries have their own similar but subtly different copyright laws and you should check the one most applicable to you.

Although you are free to assert your copyright ownership on your own original works by using the familiar © symbol, the year of creation and your name, it is also advisable to register the work in your name to ensure that the copyright is legally documented. This will be particularly useful in the future should you ever require to legally enforce your copyright. The links at the bottom of this page will provide you with details of how to do this. You should note however, that in the UK, copyright registration services are provided by commercial organisations. You should seek professional advice regarding the legal validity of such registrations if you are unsure what this means to you.

Many writers in the UK believe that mailing or posting a copy of your manuscript to yourself, your publisher or your lawyer to be retained unopened, will provide copyright protection. There is considerable debate in the writing community concerning whther this is reliable method of protecting your copyright. If you are in doubt, ensure you get professional advice and make sure you keep supporting evidence that important work is yours.

Supporting Evidence

There are many sites on the internet that will be able to give you general advice on what evidence you should keep to support any future copyright claim you may need to make. One of the important factors that you can demonstrate is the development of the work, for example draft versions, or the evolution of your own ideas. This could be your notebooks and notes and any research work you conducted and recorded to support your writing.

Copyright Expiry

Copyright does not last forever. In the UK, copyright for a literary work lasts for 70 years after the death of the copyright owner (usually the author). In the USA, the timescales can be different. The American based website states:

Copyrights in works created since 1978 will last for 70 years after the death of the work’s author. If the work is what the copyright law calls a “work made for hire,” created by employees within the scope of their employment, the work will last for 95 years from the work’s first publication or 120 years from its creation, whichever is shorter. The provisions on copyrights in works created and published before 1978 are complicated, but, as a general rule, the copyright in those works will last 95 years. Anything first published in 1923 or earlier, though, is in the public domain.

Copyright is a complicated subject and the laws of each country are different. Take the time to ensure you understand the effect of copyright on your work, especially if you are using other people’s work as a basis, or as reference material, for your own work. The links below will give you a good idea of what the laws are in the UK and the USA.

United Kingdom Copyright

UK Patent office

The Copyright Licensing Agency

The UK Copyright Service

United States Copyright

United States Copyright Office

The Copyright Society of the USA

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