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On Copyright: How Copyright Works

Yesterday I talked a little bit about how I got paid to write — both the method that paid me $200 to do something fun, and the method that has paid me…well, considerably more to do something tedious and practical. And, really, that’s the issue.

It’s easy for my bosses to evaluate the value of my documentation at work, because it’s a required component of a system with a fixed value. Art, though….

Art’s tricky, because it’s hard to put a price tag on fun. See, writers want to do creative writing — it’s fun — and readers want new stories for the same reason.

There’s clearly some value there, and some very clever men got together at some point in the distant past and decided the world needed some kind of incentive to encourage creative types to make the time for things like creative writing, so the consumer types — that is to say, the public — could have access to it. The system they dreamed up is copyright.

Friendly Note:

I’m talking about copyrighting here — protecting your creative works through legal force. That’s a different thing from copywriting — creating new written material (often) for marketing or sales purposes. For more on that, check out my friend Julie Roads.

Copyright (and, really, the whole umbrella of “Intellectual Property”) attempts to encourage creativity by guaranteeing that creators get paid to make new things. It does that by granting to a manufacturer (the creator) an arbitrary, fiat, and transferable monopoly on the sale of a product (the creative work).

Registering Your Copyright

The nice thing about copyright is that it’s easy. You technically own the copyright to anything you create, as soon as you create it. You don’t have to register your work in order to own the copyright to it.

Of course, owning the copyright is only really valuable when you have to defend it in court, and that process will go a lot smoother if you can present your registration form than if you show up with, “I wrote it on July sixth. Pinky swear.”

Anything you’re particularly concerned about protecting can be registered online with a minimum of fuss (and a $35 filing fee) by visiting the e-Copyright Office at I’ve registered a couple of my novels (in a batch, so it was just one filing fee), before engaging in what seemed like some slightly risky behavior, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I recommend it.

If you’re trying to protect your work, though, you’ll get even more mileage out of a simple statement. Anything you publish (and “publish” here simply means “make public,” so it would certainly include blog posts and Facebook Notes) that you want protected would do well to bear a standard copyright statement.

Copyright © 2010 Unstressed Syllables. All rights reserved.

The clearer your copyright statement, the less likely it is that someone will accidentally misuse your material. That also makes it harder for willful infringers to get away with their malfeasance (and it makes their reckoning bigger when one comes due).

Getting Paid for Your Copyright

If you use it right, copyright can get you paid in two ways. First, it provides enough of a safeguard that you can, with reasonable confidence, invest the time and money to print and publish a book in the confidence it will sell.

That does require you to have a market of readers ready to buy your books. But if you do have that market, you can rest assured that you’re the only one selling to them.

Then you can also generate income using the legal bludgeon that copyright provides. When people share your work or appropriate it as their own, you can threaten them with legal action if they don’t pay a licensing fee (a popular tactic among photographers, apparently), or you can just go ahead and take them to court.

Obviously the facts of the case have a lot to do with determining the amount of the reward, but if you can show that the infringement was willful (that’s where your blatant copyright statement comes in handy), then you can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars of punitive damages. That’ll pay a few bills!

Of course, most writers never participate in any of that. Even the successful ones with big book deals tends to spend very little time printing and binding books or fighting cases in Federal court.

It’s far more common for writers to sell their copyright. If you can find a big corporation (with lots of lawyers constantly at the ready), and convince them your book is worth selling, you can sell them your intellectual property rights in exchange for a cash advance and a small portion of the proceeds from any sales.

Or, if you’re truly savvy and willing to do some of the business-side legwork, you can sell “the rights” to a single work to lots and lots of different buyers for lots and lots of small portions of the proceeds from sales. Hearing Dean Wesley Smith discuss the resale of individual rights makes me feel more confident in copyright than I have in years.

Protecting Your Copyright

That’s the dream. A magic bakery that pays you again and again and again for a book you wrote once, years ago. Most of those rights you sold took away your control over your work, though.

That’s a big drawback, and it’s not the only negative aspect of copyright protection for creators. As you may have noticed in some of the discussion above, there’s a real and constant burden on the writer to actively protect the copyright on a creative work.

That’s an awful lot of time spent not writing. So come back tomorrow and I’ll talk a little bit about how to protect your copyright…and whether you should.

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