Copyright Law TM Evans

The Lit Law Corner™ by Tonya Evans

Tonya Evans

Tonya M. Evans is an intellectual property and publishing lawyer, professor of Law at Widener University School of Law, and author of a series of legal reference guides for writers, including Copyright Companion for Writers (Legal Write Publications). Visit her site at and follow her at @LegalWritePub.

What Every Writer Should Know About Copyright

We live much of our lives online in the twenty-first century. From business to pleasure, we do it all. We connect with others via personal and professional networks like Facebook,Twitter, YouTube, FourSquare, Kickstarter and LinkedIn, just to name a few. We buy and exchange goods and services. We access news, information and educational tools. We support causes. There is no question that we are consumers on the Web. And you, as a writer, can also be a direct-to-consumer content-provider by uploading to the Internet and distributing literary works electronically.

When Congress first enacted copyright laws, the members never could have anticipated that we would one day sit in our homes in fuzzy slippers and create perfect digital copies of a protected work and send those copies to dozens or transmit them to hundreds of people (friends and total strangers alike) around the world – instantly! So technology challenges existing laws. And, as usual, the law is playing serious catch-up.

But until there are substantive changes, copyright law as it applies to hard copies of literary and artistic works applies equally to works on the Web as well. And in this series of articles, I will help to clarify and demystify the complex web of laws that apply to writing and publishing so that you will know how to protect and maximize the value and licensing potential of your work and avoid infringing the rights of others.

First things first. What is copyright?

The first thing every writer and self-publisher should understand is what copyright is, what how it is created and what it protects. So we begin at the beginning. Copyright is a federal law that provides exclusive rights to the “author” of a work -- a word broadly defined as one who creates an original literary or artistic work (more than what we commonly understand the term author to mean). Copyright protects an author’s original artistic or literary work, whether published (meaning distributed to the public) or unpublished (not distributed at all or only to a few people).

If you have created an original literary or artistic work in some tangible form – in writing or on film or canvas – or for our purposes during this class, in an electronic format, for example – then nothing more is required as copyright is created automatically. Copyright in your work exists. While there are a number of benefits to registering your copyright with the Copyright Office, you do not have to register your work for it to be protected by copyright law.

In general, the Copyright Act gives a copyright owner the exclusive right to do and to authorize others to do (or preclude others from doing) the following:

• Reproduce the work (make copies)

• Prepare derivative works based on the original (create a motion picture based on a novel or a novel based on a motion picture)

• Distribute copies of the work to the public (publish) by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending

• Perform the work publicly (a public reading)

• Display the work publicly (hang a painting in an art gallery)

Collectively, these rights are often referred to as an author’s exclusive bundle of rights. And, with certain limited exceptions, all of the rights in the bundle apply regardless of whether the work appears in print form or in electronic form via the Internet.

In the next article, I’ll cover what copyright does not protect, the difference between fair use and public domain and how to register your copyright (and why you should). Here’s a hint: the Poor Man’s copyright is a myth. And I will conclude the series on some essential information every freelance writer should know about the law.

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