Yeah. This one. You knew we were going to have to talk about it eventually. I know, many authors (possibly even most) don’t like talking about copyright, but it’s something you need to think about when you self-publish. If you’d rather read about the actual writing, you can still find the main Road to Self Publishing page here. Still with me? Good.
First, a little disclaimer. I am not now, nor am I likely to ever be, a lawyer, so take everything in here with a grain of salt. If you’re unsure what do do when it comes to copyright, it wouldn’t hurt to talk to an actual Intellectual Property lawyer. Also, I’ll only be speaking about U.S. copyright here. I know next to nothing about copyright in other countries. Some of the things here might be applicable to them, but others will not. Proceed with caution.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk copyright. I’m sure many of you haven’t thought about your copyright before, and probably won’t think about it after this. That’s not a bad thing. You should think about it for a little bit, though, as your choices with copyright will affect other publishing decisions going forward.
The first question is; should I even register a copyright at all? The good news is, in the U.S. it’s not necessary to register the copyright. As soon as you create the thing (like this post) the copyright goes to you. The only real use a registered copyright is if you end up going to court. During a lawsuit, the registration acts as a hard date-of-creation and can make the case that the work is actually yours that much stronger. That being said, if you’re planning on staying out of court, a registration is possibly unnecessary.
One of the reasons you might not want to register the copyright is if you choose a more permissive license than “all rights reserved”. One option on that front is Creative Commons. I actually use Creative Commons for all my posts here. Specifically, I use the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You can check you the copyright notice for all work by Eldiste (me) here. All Creative Commons licenses and many others, are part of a family called “Copyleft”. Copyleft licenses aim to ease up on the current copyright paradigm by specifically granting the public some, or all, of the things that typical copyright would normally restrict. For example, the license I put on my work here specifically grants everyone the right to copy, remix, or incorporate my work into their own, as long as they properly credit me. It is also what they call a “viral license”. This means, if you remix, or incorporate my works, the license comes along for the ride. This does not mean that your entire work would fall under the Creative Commons license, only the portions of my work that you incorporated into your own. It does, however, mean that you can’t put any extra DRM on your work, as it would also lock-up the portion of the work covered under Creative Commons with restrictions that the original license didn’t have. There are other copyleft licenses that don’t have viral elements, so dig through the Creative Commons site, and find one that’s right for you.
Of course, if you want to give the people maximum freedom, you can always put your work into the Public Domain. That means, anyone can do literally anything with your work they want, including publishing it exactly as you had it but without your name and profiting off it. I personally like the Public Domain, but for those of us who are smaller, it can be a challenge. Since someone with a larger marketing budget could take your work and use it to get your potential audience, it’s harder for us to use the Public Domain and make money. If that doesn’t bother you, by all means put it in the Public Domain.
But what if you don’t want to deal with copyleft and viral licensing. What if the Public Domain is scary? Well, good news! Like I said above, if you’ve written the thing, you have an “all rights reserved” copyright. This means the only way a somebody can use your work is with your express permission, or if it falls under fair use. So, how do you know if something falls under fair use? Well, sadly, in the US, there is no hard and fast test to tell if something falls under fair use. The only way to know for certain is to go through the courts. There are a few ways you can make an educated guess, though. If it uses a very small portion of the overall work, say one or two lines. If the portion used is not what makes the work unique. If it’s for educational or news reporting purposes. If the use of your work falls under multiple of those cases, there’s a good chance it’s fair use.
Have I cleared up copyright for you? Or just muddied the waters? Either way, I hope this nearly incoherent rant has been informative, and maybe helped you a little bit. Stick around for more nuts-and-bolts publishing in the next one.