A Writer’s Guide to Copyright

Over the course of designing authonomy we’ve spent more than a few hours with our legal eagles – and it’s become increasingly clear that the basics of copyright law are surprisingly little understood.

Many authors worry unnecessarily about the legal status of their literary efforts – if you’re amongst them, read on for a simple Q and A that should give you the clearest low down on protecting your work, however you want to use it.

How do I get copyright over my work?

In the UK an author automatically owns the copyright of their work as soon as it exits in some material form. This might mean written on paper, or saved in a computer file, or even scribbled on a napkin. You’re not required to do anything at all to gain ownership of the copyright. Nothing? Really?

In the unlikely event that someone should try to pass off your work as their own, an author’s chance of winning any claim of copyright infringement is vastly increased if they can offer some evidence that they really did first produce the disputed work.

In the States the US Copyright Office recommends you register your work with them for exactly this purpose. In the UK there is no similar government body, so some authors choose to post themselves a sealed and dated copy – or they register work, for a small fee, with a number of private companies that offer a similar service to the US Copyright Office. In short, anything you can do to prove the date your work was produced could be helpful down the line.

Can you copyright an idea?

On the whole, no you can’t. What you own copyright in is specifically your ‘expression of an idea’. In the simplest terms, this means your actual sentences: certainly anyone reproducing anything but the briefest of snippets of your book might well be considered to have infringed your copyright.

Technically the ‘expression of an idea’ might also cover more general features of a book. That’s to say, lifting wholesale the very specific plot and structure of a novel, or copying the arguments, development and conclusion of a non-fiction work, might be considered an infringement, whatever the actual words the infringing work used. Ultimately it’s up to a judge to decide whether what’s been copied is sufficiently substantial, and sufficiently original, to be worth protecting by law.

Once again I ask – what about my ideas? If you want to know about your general ideas, plot twists and concepts – these are pretty much fair game. Bookshops, offices, pubs and clubs are full of ‘good ideas’; it’s expressing them in 80,000 words of finely balanced prose that makes your inspiration valuable. After all, it’s a book, not an idea, that you’re ultimately trying to sell to a publisher, and fortunately that’s exactly what your copyright protects.

How does copyright differ for ‘published’ and ‘unpublished’ authors?

It doesn’t – their rights of ownership are the same. Published authors give a licence to the companies they work with to publish and distribute their work in specific formats, specific territories and for a specific length of time. On rare occasions, an author may choose to sell their copyright to a publisher, or indeed give their copyright to a friend, relation or charitable foundation, but this isn’t standard practice.

The principle difference is perhaps that a ‘published’ author may be able to call on the financial support and legal expertise of their publisher if a potential copyright infringement were taken to court, while an ‘unpublished’ or ‘self-published’ author might have to act alone.

Are copyright rules different on the internet?

Generally speaking, no. Publishing on a blog; broadcasting a reading on internet radio; handing out free printed copies on street corners – none of this invalidates your right to be recognised as the author of your work, or allows anyone to use that work without your permission.

What can I do if I think my copyright has been infringed?

First of all, think again. Are you absolutely sure that: a) work has been copied directly from you, and isn’t just a similar theme that might have been arrived at independently; and b) what has been copied from you is both ‘original’ and constitutes a ‘substantial part’ of your work?

If you’re sure, common practice in the UK is to first contact the person (or company) you believe to be infringing your copyright with your complaint. Only if you don’t receive an acceptable response should you find a lawyer familiar with copyright law and regulations – and start preparing to make your claim by legal methods.

Should I worry about all this?

Almost certainly not – many writers are far too anxious about copyright issues. Unpublished authors who’ve already invested time and effort into creating their own careful manuscripts are unlikely to want to steal yours, and publishers themselves certainly aren’t in the business of stealing your work – they’ve got plenty of writers of their own. Still, it makes sense to know exactly where you stand.

Want to know more?

In the UK, copyright falls under the remit of the Intellectual Property Office; in the US, a first stop for more copyright information would be the United States Copyright Office. Writers might also want to hook up with the Society of Authors, a body that works to explain and protect authors’ rights.