Well, no, Maybe?
This is a question we get all the time. And the final answer is a lawyerly “Maybe.”
Here’s how it works.
The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (better known as the “Berne Convention” because it was originally signed in Berne, Switzerland and has been amended several times since) was adopted in 1886 and signed by 178 countries, including the United States and North Korea. It is administered by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), which also administers a number of other international treaties relation to intellectual property.
See the WIPO summary of the Berne Convention HERE.
French author Victor Hugo was a driving force behind the development of the Convention.
The problem was that literary works were being plagiarized—people claimed authorship and were selling the works—and consequently depriving the author of their rightful returns. A century ago this was a relatively simple process.
Essentially the Berne Convention says that literary works are copyright by the author as soon as they are created. In 1886 the copyright, owned by the author, was in force as soon as the work was written down or typed. The same is true today; only we are more likely to use a word processing program and store the work on a hard drive in digital form.
Getting down to a granular level, when you type a sentence of deathless prose or poetry a copyright situation is created. Add a word, and a new situation. As you progress through drafts and iterations, bunches of new copyrights protect the latest to the oldest versions.
You, the author(s), own the copyright to your original work—prose, poetry, memoir, whatever—automatically. And that protection extends to the nations who are signatories to the Berne Convention.
As author you have rights in areas such as translation to another language, the right to recite your works in public, the right to reproduce and make copies of your work, and others, sell it to Hollywood for a million dollars. You may note that, when uploading your book to KDP/Amazon, you must check to box stating that you own the copyright.
Now, the above is more or less accurate. Lawyers always seem to leave a loophole just to test us mortals.
If you plan to sue for copyright infringement, the work must be officially copyrighted within 90 days of the first publication, otherwise you’re out of luck. This seems like a lot of planning ahead, but if you write a best seller and someone on the other side of the world rips it off and makes pirated copies, you may want to take precautions in advance.
How long is the copyright in force? The general rule for written works is that the copyright duration is until the 50th year (in some instances 70 years) after the authors’ death. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions and they go on to fill up many more books. There are also “free uses” of protected works. Excerpts in reviews, quotes used in teaching, mentions in news stories and articles, and more are included.
The title of a work cannot be copyright protected. Thus, you might see multiple books with the same title on Amazon with content ranging from cookbooks to porn. Nor can ideas be protected. If Larry Niven writes a novel about a ‘ringworld’ I can also write one about the same topic. I can even copy Niven and call if “Ringworld.” But the content has to be completely different.
Obtaining separate and independent legal copyright protection is fairly simple. Google “copyright a book” and a number of options pop up including law firms, third party firms with packaged offerings, and the U.S. Copyright Office. Costs and fees range from about $65 to several hundred dollars. Remember, Caveat emptor, (buyer beware) and we are not promoting or endorsing any process or provider.
There is always the question: “Can’t I just mail myself the final document by registered mail keep it, unopened, to prove ownership?”
Quick answer: “No.”
Longer answer: “There are so many ways to unseal or open an envelope that it is virtually impossible to prove that the package has not been tampered with.”
So that method does not work.
Does the © symbol and the date mean anything? The established convention is to mark the date of first publication or distribution with “© by Author’s Name. All rights reserved.” There are variations on this if the author is using a pen name, there are several authors, or other circumstances. Copyrights may be updated and the updates noted. In the front matter of a book there is the ‘copyright page’ with lots of small type including publisher information, credits and other required information.
In the indie publishing world, the copyright generally stays with the author. The author pays a fee to have their book edited, designed and published and the obligation of the publisher stops there. Authors publishing through Hallard Press, for example, receive 100 percent of the royalties and proceeds from the book.
Even if you do copyright your book through the U.S. Copyright office and some unscrupulous operator copies, claims ownership, and sells it, there is probably little you can do without spending a good deal of money. Owners of pirated movies and music DVDs have had little success in suing their tormentors.
There is a lot more to the copyright issue than we’ve covered. Whether an author should copyright their work is an individual decision. Consulting an attorney specializing in literary matters may help.
Authors ask: “Do you copyright your work?” The answer: “No.” If, 50 years after my death, someone wants to take credit for this column under their byline, go for it.
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. The above is general information and is not intended as legal advice, a recommendation, or an endorsement. For legal advice, consult an attorney.