By Ted Witt
Afraid someone will steal your writing? It’s a common fear, but the law protects you the moment you save your first word on a hard drive or pencil a phrase on paper. Still, there are limitations, and the law can be complicated. For starters, check out these highlights describing United States copyright law.
What cannot be copyrighted?
Book titles: Sorry, your novel’s clever title can be used by your competitor.
Ideas: Too bad, Mr. Einstein, the theory of relativity is an idea. It is not protected. However, your creative, written explanation of how the theory works is copyrightable. (Albert could not have sued anybody for just writing about the theory of relativity.) Likewise, if you have idea for a plot, it is not copyrightable. If you discuss your plot idea with another person, the idea is not protected; your conversation partner can use the idea without penalty. Only your tangible writing is copyrightable, so be careful with whom you share your ideas.
Speeches: Because your spoken words are not in tangible form, they are not protected. Once recorded, your speech recording is copyrightable. If delivered from a written text, the speech’s text itself can be protected by copyright.
Facts: Examples: news, baseball scores, telephone numbers, addresses, and website domain names are not protected.
Methods: Nope. This category includes how-to advice on how to fix a faucet and your recipe for carrot cake.
Discoveries: Edison discovered that sound can be imprinted on vinyl. That’s not copyrightable, but he had a good reason to seek a patent to protect his invention.
Fashion: Assume you create a gown for Julia Roberts to wear to the Academy Awards. Too bad! It can’t be copyrighted because it is a useful object. However, you may be able to copyright the fabric print, if you created it.
Works from the Federal Government: Yes, all those NASA space photos are in the public domain. So is the text of all U.S. government laws and court decisions, as are photos taken by the government-paid presidential photographer.
So what can be copyrighted?
Works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, drawings, computer software, and architecture.
Your creative work is copyrighted the instant it takes physical form, even if on the back of a napkin.
- Including the copyright symbol gives you greater clout in court and the ability to collect on damages if you ever need to sue an intellectual property thief. Thus, for this article, I declare: © 2013, Pretty Road Press.
- Registering your work with the U.S. copyright office affords you the most protection if you ever need to sue.
- Failing to enforce your copyright can lead to: a) little claim to damages when you file a lawsuit, b) a speedier transition of the work to the public domain.
Ted Witt is a publisher, working at Pretty Road Press, an indie imprint located in Folsom, California.