A Few Words on Copyright

A Few Words on Copyright

from Jazz Notes 7/2 1995

by Art Lange
Copyright © 1995, Art Lange

It occurred to me a while back that a lot of writers may not know much about the legalities of copyright - I certainly didn't, until recently. For example, do you know exactly what rights you hold upon the completion of a review or article, and what rights you give away upon its publication?

According to "Circular No. 1: Copyright Basics" issued by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, "Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form; that is, it is an incident of the process of authorship. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created it. Only the author or those deriving their rights through the author can rightfully claim copyright." In other words, upon completion of the work - the moment you lift your pen from the paper, pull the sheet of paper from the typewriter, or hit the "Save" button on your computer - you (or your heirs) own all rights to this work now and for the rest of your life plus 50 years after your death. It is not necessary for you to file for "official" copyright with the Copyright Office in order to obtain these rights, they are automatically yours by law. (There are some advantages to filing for copyright registration - basically in order to establish a public record of your copyright claim against any future claims, and in case you anticipate having to take a copyright infringement case to court. But for the most part, it doesn't affect your rights.)

This is true for all free-lance writers. This is not true of work which is considered "work for hire" - that is, if the writer is a (staff) employee of a publication and the work is created or prepared ". . . within the scope of his or her employment." However, if you are a free-lance writer and sell your work to a publication, you are not giving up any rights to that work except for that one specific printing. After that single printing of your work, you retain all rights to the work. If the publication (or anyone else) wishes to use your work again at any time or in any form, it must obtain your permission and compensate you again in whatever way you deem necessary. The only way in which you give up any of those rights is if you sign a contract that specifically states what future rights you are giving to the publication.

Your work does not need to be published in order to qualify for automatic copyright protection. Even the manuscript in your drawer or held in computer memory is protected by copyright. A magazine or newspaper cannot claim, however, that because you sent them a manuscript of your work under a (non-written) agreement to publish it they now own future rights to the work. Furthermore, "Circular No. 1" states that even though a publication as a whole may be copyrighted by the publisher, each separate contribution is distinct from such copyright, "and vests initially with the author of the contribution." Again, the only way you give up any rights to your work except for that single printing is if you sign a contract.

All of these rights pertain to work written after 1989, when the Copyright Act of 1909 was changed. (For information about copyright on work written before 1989, it's probably best to contact the Copyright Office, or find a lawyer familiar with both the old and new copyright laws.) Even though it is not required by law in order to secure your copyright protection, "Circular No. 1" suggests that it is "highly recommended" that you place on all of your work a notice of copyright; for example, 1995 Art Lange, or Copyright 1995 Art Lange. In addition, the circular states that "There is no such thing as an 'international copyright' that will automatically protect an author's writings throughout the entire world." For a list of countries which offer similar copyright protection to those of the U.S., contact the Copyright Office and request "Circular No. 38a."

This is just a summary of some of the copyright information contained in "Circular No. 1." To obtain your own free copy of this circular, along with another catalog of available publications on copyright, call the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress at 202/707-9100, and ask to receive General Information Package 118.

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