Top 10 Myths About Copyright
by Daniel Steven
As a novelist and publishing lawyer, I am frequently surprised by the abundance of
copyright myths. Lets look at the top ten, as seen in my law practice:
Myth #1: To obtain a copyright on my work, I have to register it.
Actually, copyright is automatic when a work is created and fixed in a copy or
recorded for the first time (the instant you lift pen from paper, or your word processing
software saves to disk). Registration is not required to qualify for copyright protection.
Myth #2: If it doesnt have a copyright notice, its not
Wrong. The use of a copyright notice is not required. Nevertheless, its better
to use one. A copyright notice informs the public that your work is protected by
copyright, identifies you, and shows the year of first publication. In the event your work
is infringed and it has a notice, the infringing party may not claim "innocent
infringement" and avoid paying damages. The use of the copyright notice does not
require advance permission from, or registration with, the U.S. Copyright Office. The
copyright notice on "visually perceptible copies" (i.e., print, web pages,
computer text files) should contain all the following three elements: the symbol © (the
letter C in a circle), or the word "Copyright," or the abbreviation
"Copr."; and the year of first publication of the work; and your name, or an
abbreviation by which your name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative
designation of the owner. Example: © 2003 John Doe
Myth #3: It is legal to copy a work as long as I give the author full
Nope. Under the provisions of the Copyright Act, the copyright owner, and only the
copyright owner, has the right to reproduce the work unless it comes under certain limited
exceptions, such as fair use (see Myth #6). Simply giving credit or
attribution, without having permission, is the same as stealing Joes wallet and then
saying, while using Joes money, This came from Joe. Its still
Myth #4: If I dont charge for the work, its not a copyright
False. See Myth #3. Some people believe that they are giving the copyright owner free
advertising, and the owner should be grateful. But it is up to the owner, not you, whether
he/she wishes their work displayed or published and in what context.
Myth #5: Anything on the Internet is in the public domain.
Wrong. The Internet is just another medium of publication. All the rules of copyright
apply as much as to print publication, unless the copyright owner specifically and
explicitly places the work in the public domain. Certain works are, however, automatically
in the public domain: items that cannot be copyrighted (ideas, titles, names, short
phrases, and slogans); works whose copyright expired and/or was not renewed; federal
government documents; and many state government documents and publications.
Myth #6: Unless I copy the whole work, it is fair use and
thus not a violation of copyright.
Nope. Fair use is the most abused concept in copyright law. Section 107 of
the Copyright Act provides that "the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such
use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords . . for purposes such as criticism, comment,
news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or
research, is not an infringement of copyright. Fair use generally is a short
excerpt, usually attributed, used in connection with genuine criticism, parody, or
teaching. In my experience, most of what people label as fair use isnt.
Myth #7: I may use characters from other writers as long as my story is
Negative. The making of derivative works belongs exclusively to the
copyright owner. If you use characters, scenes, or settings from another authors
work, you need permission unless you fall under the parody or criticism exception
of fair use (see above). Therefore, you may make fun of Jessica Fletcher in a parody or
satire, but you cant use her in your novel without a license from David Bain. And
yes, it is true that a lot of fan web sites and fiction violate copyright but
thats because the owners tolerate such violations, for their own reasons.
Myth #8: Anything mailed or e-mailed to me becomes my property.
Well, yes, you do own the physical print copy of the letter or e-mail printout. But
no, you do not own the copyright for the content, and you may not publish the letter
without the consent of the person who wrote the letter, although you certainly may report
on what it says, and perhaps even quote from a portion of it to make a point (fair use).
Myth #9: Song lyrics arent protected by copyright.
Song lyrics are as any other creative work, and are protected by copyright. Yes, this
means that generally you must get permission from the copyright owner if you wish to use
song lyrics in your novel. And no, its not fair use unless you are reviewing the
song or making a parody.
Myth #10: If the copyright holder didnt register their copyright,
I cant be sued.
Yes and no. Registration is a prerequisite to filing a copyright infringement suit,
but registration may be made at any time within the life of the copyright (for works
created after 1978, authors life plus 70 years). If the registration is made within
three months of first publication, the law confers certain additional benefits such as
statutory damages and attorney's fees. Thus, the fact that the owner has not yet
registered the copyright will not prevent you from being sued.
© 2003 Daniel Steven