We’re going to look at something that petrifies most authors: how to copyright a book. Why is this scary topic worth delving into? Well, if you don’t copyright your work you could find yourself in this nightmare scenario:
While waiting for your flight, you step into the bookstore to kill some time. You pick a book off the bestsellers shelf, flip to a random page and start reading. All of a sudden you realize there’s something wrong. Every word on this page feels eerily familiar. You flip to another page, and sure enough, the dialogue between the characters is very similar to stuff you’ve written. In fact, certain parts are exactly the same word for word. Even the plot is the same as your literary work, except instead of the main character being a thirty-one-year-old lawyer named Blaine, he’s a thirty-one-year-old lawyer named Wayne…
Don’t let this be you. Copyright laws, copyright infringement, and the world of angry lawyers can be intimidating (alright…maybe the lawyers aren’t too angry and the situations aren’t that dramatic,) but it is important. As an author, it’s best to know what you can and can’t do in regards to copyrighting when self-publishing your own book.
(Even though we use the word book a lot in this article, everything we discuss also covers the kindle & e-book world.)
Let’s get started.
Self-Publishing School Is No Replacement for Your Attorney (As Much as We Would Like to Be.)
Before we go on we need to include this disclaimer: as much as we’d like to one day be the one stop shop for everything to do with self-publishing, we are not a replacement for your attorney. Nothing we write here is a replacement for professional advice. We recommend talking to a lawyer when seeking legal advice.
However, with that disclaimer out of the way, we do want to make the topic of copyright as accessible as possible to authors. So we did our research and answered the most common questions authors ask when it comes to copyright protection.
It’s Not Only About How to Copyright a Book…
With the explosion of self-publishing, indie authors must be aware of what they can and can’t do when it comes to quoting, borrowing, and publishing artistic works from other authors. This post isn’t to “scare” you, but to give some insight into how you can protect yourself and your own original work from being misused or stolen.
In this post we will also look at the 10 most common questions authors ask when it comes to copyright concerns, for both their own works and when borrowing from other sources.
But first, it all begins with creating the copyright page in your book.
Your Copyright Page.
Open any book that may be sitting near your desk right now. What do you notice within the first few pages? The copyright page.
Whether the book is self-published or through a traditional publisher, there’s a copyright page inside and within the first few pages of every book. Typically, the copyright page will appear in your book right after the title page and just before the table of contents.
The main components to include in your book’s copyright page are:
- The copyright notice. This has the little © copyright symbol or you can use the word “copyright.” So, it would look like this: ©2017 Jane Doe
- The year of publication of the book
- The name of the owner of the works, which is usually the author or publishing house name.
- Ordering information
- Reservation of rights
- Copyright notice
- Book editions
- ISBN Number
- Your website (you want them to find you, right?)
- Credits to the book (cover designer, editor)
Take a look at this example from Chandler Bolt’s book Published. The Proven Path from Blank Page to Published Author.
A Note on Disclaimers.
If you’re writing a book on personal health, success as an entrepreneur, providing financial advice—anything that readers could fail at—you should consider an extended disclaimer.
For example, if you give advice on earning a million dollars this year, and the reader ends up losing money, you could be blamed for their misfortune because of a promise you made. However, an extended disclaimer could have protected you.
Consider putting an extended disclaimer in your book that comes after the copyright jargon to protect your opinions, advice and information. In other words, tell readers that they are reading your book and applying your advice at their own risk.
Here are some examples of disclaimers.
The characters in this book are entirely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
The advice and strategies found within may not be suitable for every situation. This work is sold with the understanding that neither the author nor the publisher are held responsible for the results accrued from the advice in this book.
What Rights Does Copyright Protection Grant You?
When you copyright your work, your ideas aren’t protected, but the expression of your ideas or facts is. Otherwise Star-Trek & Star Wars (and many science fiction novels) would have needed the permission of John W. Campbell, Jr. to feature the ideas of warp drives and hyperspace travel. Or George Orwell would have infringed on the copyright of We‘s author Yevgeny Zamyatin, when he copied the plot and conclusion for 1984.
Idea recycling is not copyright infringement, but someone copying the style and words you use to express those ideas is.
As a copyright owner you possess the exclusive rights:
- To produce copies or reproductions of the work
- To import or export the work
- To create derivative works
- To perform or display the work publicly
- To sell or cede these rights to others
Exclusive means that these rights are yours, and remain yours until you choose otherwise (for example when you grant a publishing company the right to print copies of your book), or the duration of your copyright expires. However,
- If someone sells your work without your permission, then that’s copyright infringement.
- If someone publishes your work without your permission, then that’s copyright infringement.
- If someone acts out your work in the theater without your permission… you get the idea.
Plagiarism vs Copyright.
Don’t mistake copyright infringement for plagiarism. While they do seem and sound similar, and sometimes can occur at the same time, they are two different things. Plagiarism is when someone copies another’s original work without credit, trying to pass it off as their own. Copyright infringement covers a wider variety of cases, as copyright protects you from someone copying the expression of your ideas and passing it off as their own original work.
The 10 Most Common Questions.
With the massive expansion of self-publishing today, it is more important than ever for authors and artists who put their creative work out there to ensure they are fully protected.
When we borrow work from other authors, living or dead, we have to consider:
- What can I actually use?
- When is permission needed?
Here is the golden rule when it comes to copyright laws: Never assume that anything is free! Everything out there, including on the internet, has been created by someone.
Here are common questions authors have about protecting themselves, their works, and others they may have quoted in their books:
1. Do I have to register my book before it is copyrighted?
Your book (or e-book) is legally copyrighted as soon as it is written. This even holds for unpublished works. However, if you want to protect your material under the fullest extent of the law, register your book with the Federal Copyright Office. On the chance someone does attempt to pirate your book or portions of it, registering with the US Copyright Office will give you greater leverage if you need to take legal action. You will need to pay a small filing fee when registering.
2. How many words can I quote from another book or source?
There are no set rules on how much you can actually “borrow” from existing works. But, it’s best to exercise common sense here and keep it short. A general rule is to keep it under 300 words.
Paul Rapp, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights, says that “if the quote drives your narrative, if you are using an author’s quote in your argument, or if you are giving an opinion on an author’s quote, then it is considered fair use.”
What is fair use?
A legal concept that allows the reproduction of copyrighted material for certain purposes without obtaining permission and without paying a fee or royalty. Purposes permitting the application of fair use generally include review, news reporting, teaching, or scholarly research.
If you use something published by someone else with the sole purpose of monetary gain, this doesn’t constitute fair use.
3. Can I write about real people?
Especially in works of nonfiction, real people are often mentioned to express an opinion or as an example to clarify a fact or opinion. Generally, you can use the names of real people as long as the material isn’t damaging to their reputation or libelous. Stick to the facts and write about what is true based on your research.
4. Can I borrow lyrics from songs?
Stephen King often used song lyrics for his books including Christine and The Stand. He obtained permission for these works. Regarding Christine, King says, “Lyrics quotes in this book are assigned to the singer most commonly associated with them. This may offend the purist who feels that a song lyric belongs more to the writer than the singer.”
Song lyrics fall under strict copyright even if it is just a single line used. Try to get permission if you use a song. You can contact the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). Once you find the rights owner, you have to ask for permission through writing.
5. Do I need permission to borrow material from a book that is over 100 years old?
Once the copyright on a book or material has expired, or the author has been dead for seventy years, the work enters into the public domain and you can use it without permission or licensing. BUT this does vary country to country. You can check the terms of a work’s copyright in the US here.
6. Are authors liable for content used in a book?
Yup. Even with traditional publishing houses, the author is still responsible for the content written and used in the book. In fact, traditionally published authors usually have to sign a waiver that removes the publisher from any liability pertaining to the material the author used if the writer included that material without proper permission. And you already know, as a self-published author, you’re on your own.
7. If I use an inspirational quote from another writer or famous person, do I need permission?
You don’t need permission to use quotes in a book provided that you credit the person who created it and/or spoke the quote.
“Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream.” –Edgar Allan Poe
8. What is the best way to protect my work from being stolen?
Your work is copyrighted as soon as it is written. But you can register your work with the US copyright office. If you have a blog where you also post content, you need to have a Terms & Privacy disclaimer on your page. This would preferably be at the top where it is easy to see, although many writers and bloggers include this at the bottom of every page. You should also include your copyright on your blog that protects your content from being copied and pasted into another site without permission or recognition. If you don’t mind people copying your work online, but would like to be given credit, you can look into the creative commons license.
9. A royalty free stock photo means that I can use it for free and don’t have to get permission, right?
Wrong. Most stock photos have copyright, even if they appear in search engines and you can easily download or copy them. If you grab a photo off the net and think you can slap it on a book cover or use it for free in your book, think again. It’s recommended you purchase photos through sites such as Shutterstock or Depositphotos.
10. A friend told me I can save on the copyright fee and legally protect myself by mailing a copy of my work to myself. Is this true?
Simple answer: No.
This is known as “poor man’s copyright”. It’s sometimes suggested as an alternative to intellectual property registration, for people who want to save the hassle and cost of registration. The argument being that if you ever find yourself in court protecting your rights, having mailed your work to yourself, you created a legal and public record that you had the work in your possession at a specified date, thus allowing you to claim the work as yours. This can be useful in certain countries for protecting intellectual property, for example with patents in the UK.
But does this work under U.S. copyright law? No.
Here’s what the federal copyright office has to say about this on their website: “The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a ‘poor man’s copyright.’ There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”
If you ever want to find yourself laughed at in a courtroom, it’s a neat trick. But if you want to legally protect your original work, then file your copyrighted work with copyright.gov.
Boring, Yet Cool Legal Terms You Should Know.
I know, I know…we would rather write books, rake in the cash, and sign autographs than worry about technical legal jargon. But the more you know, the more time you can spend writing without wondering, “Is this legal?” Here are some legal terms to keep you informed on your rights as a self-publisher and protect your works:
- Copyright infringement
- Intellectual property rights
- Public domain work
- First Amendment
- Indemnification clause
- Fair use
- Libelous writing
Before you publish your next book, take a few minutes to read over this “brief” report from the United States Copyright Office. You can also check out this handy guideline for authors on what needs permission vs. what you can use without asking.
A legally protected author is a profitable author (or at least they have the potential to be). The world of copyright can seem overwhelming at first, but as you’ve just read, there’s not much to it once it’s been broken down. As an author you only need to worry about two things: protecting your work and not infringing on the copyrights of others. If in doubt of whether you can use someone else’s work, ask permission, and make sure to register your copyright with copyright.gov.