Three Myths About Copyright
Talking to so many independent creators, I hear a lot of interesting ideas about how copyright law works and what it does. Very interesting ideas.
To be fair, law is not known for its clarity. And thanks to the internet’s obsession with copyright, it’s not always clear what’s helpful explanatory information and what’s one person’s bizarro idea of how the law works.
Here are three myths you can stop falling for.
Myth #1: You should copyright your catchphrase/business name/plan for world domination!
Copyright protects a lot of stuff, but not everything. And because copyright protection lasts for such a long time (in many cases, your life plus an additional 70 years) it isn’t in anyone’s best interest to protect more than is necessary.
Specifically, copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” Think plays, comics, paintings, music, and movies.
Things not protected by copyright include:
- “useful objects”
- ephemeral pleasantries
So what should you do if you want to protect your catch phrase, business name or plan for world domination? Look toward trademark and patent law instead.
Trademark law protects things like logos, business names and catchphrases; those signifiers that tell you where a product comes from. The idea behind trademark law is that if you see a logo you associate with something good, you should be able to trust that every product with that logo comes from the same good place. Trademark law is a use it or lose it right; if you don’t defend the uniqueness of your trademark, you risk losing the law’s protections.
Useful objects, like your plan for world domination or a new machine that automatically removes and incinerates junk mail from your mailbox, are protected through patent law. I tend to think of patent law protecting things that do work, but to be fair its protection is a bit broader than that. Patent law protection doesn’t last nearly as long as copyright, but the protection is very valuable. Patent law is not for the DIYer; find a good patent attorney and use their expertise to protect your work.
Myth #2: If you mail your comic/novel/play to yourself and save the sealed envelope with the postage mark on it, you’ve registered your copyright!
The first time I heard this myth it was described to me in exacting detail by my best friend who happened to have a stack of screenplays in sealed, self-addressed and posted envelopes in his bedroom closet. Much as I loved him, I thought it sounded kind of silly then, too.
To get copyright protection you used to have to publish the work, but that changed in 1978. Or as I like to call it “a long frakking time ago.”
Because of how the Copyright Act defined “publish” back in the olden days, the idea of sending your precious work out into the world, only to return to you, somehow blossomed into being a legitimate way of qualifying for copyright protection.
Registering a copyright these days is easy, cheap and doesn’t require publication. If you have $35 and 30 minutes, you can register a copyright for your work. You can even do it from the comfort of your own home in your PJs!
The Copyright Office has loads of great fact sheets to help you figure out the type of registration you should pursue, but for good advice on the subtleties of your particular project, your best bet, as always, is to chat with an attorney.
Myth #3: If you have an idea for a character, you should register it to protect it!
Characters can receive copyright protection, but they cannot be independently registered for protection separately from the work in which they appear.
If that just made your brain hurt, don’t worry, you’re in good company.
If you send in a registration for your 10 page character study for your yet to be realized novel, the Copyright Office will take your $35, but the protection you’ll get is for the words on the page, not the idea of the character the words are expressing.
Similarly, if you send in an illustration of your character, the image itself might receive protection, but the essence of the character — her particular sense of humor, his distinctive swagger — will not.
Character protection presents one of the messier problems in copyright. On the one hand, if someone creates an awesome character there is a desire to make sure they legally benefit from their creation. At the same time, copyright operates as a lock down, it takes that character out of play for anyone else, and it does so for a very long time.
So the law has drawn a messy line in chocolate pudding: if a character in a work is distinctive “enough” it can be protected with the full force of copyright, but a character, separate from a book, play or movie, can’t be independently registered for copyright protection.
So how do you protect your characters? The same way you’d protect any other element of your story: register the entire work with the Copyright Office and follow up with people you find using your work without permission.
Don’t forget to stick a copyright notice on your work: © [Year of First Publication] [Your Name]. Doing this is not a guarantee you’ll get all the protection you want, but letting people know that you claim ownership of the work can help discourage misuse. Trademark law can also help protect characters in certain instances.
If you hear something about copyright law that sounds really far out, don’t bet your career on it. Check out the Copyright Office to see if you can find the same information there; avoid doing your legal research on user forums and in blog comments. If the question is really important to your work, skip the eagerly helpful internet and talk to a real, live lawyer.
As always, this post isn’t legal advice. Legal advice comes from a lawyer who listens to you and gives you specific advice regarding your specific situation. This, in contrast, is a blog that is incapable of listening, giving specific advice or other sentient gymnastics.