Copyright Law

There are two sides to Copyright Law.

As writers we need to know how to protect our work as well as how to avoid infringing on the legal rights of others. To that end all writers should have some understanding of this subject.

This article is not a definitive text nor legal advise on the subject but should only be considered as an "introduction" to the subjects of; Copyright, Copyright Law, Plagiarism, Copyright Infringement, and the "Fair Use" law regarding copyrighted material.


Copyright literally means the right to copy. The person or legal entity that "owns" the copyright has the legal right to reproduce or "copy" the work as they see fit including selling that right or a portion thereof to another.

Copyright as it relates to legal ownership and exclusive use of any form of intellectual property is automatic. It is not something that must be applied for, or paid for in any way. The very moment that you write it - it's yours and it's protected under US Copyright Law.

However, it could be in your best interests to "document" your authorship. You can, for a small fee, register your published or un-published work with the US Copyright Office. A single work or an entire collection can be "registered".

Information and Publications Section Copyright Office, Library of Congress Washington, D.C. 20559 (202) 287-8700

Although registration is not required for copyright it is required before one can sue for copyright infringement.

Authors of US works are also "encouraged" to place a notice of copyright, the year, and the name of the owner of the copyright on all works.

The copyright of any given work generally covers the life of the author plus 50 years. (conditions apply)

After which time that work becomes part of the "public domain" and can be copied, or used in any way without threat of "copyright infringement".

Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

copied from - Law Dictionary

plagiarism - Appropriation of the literary composition of another and passing off as one's own the product of the mind and language of another. The offense of plagiarism, known in the law as infringement of copyright, comes into being only when the work allegedly copied is protected by copyright.

Plagiarism is, making an exact (word-for-word) copy of someone else's work and passing it off as your own. Plagiarism is not "using someone else's teachings" and it's not "utilizing a lot of their work". It's an exact word-for-word copy of what they said (or wrote) INCLUDING exactly how they said it. It's a copy.

Plagiarism does not include "paraphrasing" or expressing the same or similar ideas in ones own words. This concept is covered quite exactly under section 8b of US copyright law - listed below.

Copyright Laws of the United States

The following is taken from US Copyright Law - Title 17

§ 102 • Subject matter of copyright: In general

(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:

(1) literary works;
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.

(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

(emphasis added)

It is important to understand that an; idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery can not be owned and is therefore not protected under Copyright Law.

While some of the above might be protected under "patent or trademark law" they are not protected under copyright law.

It is easy to see that 1-5 word combinations usually associated with products or services are seldom if ever protected under copyright law. These word combinations are commonly used as "brand names" and are usually covered under Trademark Law. In which case it is not the mere words themselves, but the words as symbols, which are protected; such as - Addis or Coca-Cola. Writers are encouraged to include the little ™ symbol directly after such words when using them in their writing. But only encouraged - not required by law.

Now let's consider the other half of Copyright Law - known as "Fair Use".

The "Fair Use" Law

As citizens of the United States, everyone is guarantied (under the First Amendment to The Constitution) the right to Freedom of Speech. Which means anyone can say whatever they choose, about whatever they wish. The only restrictions being copyright infringement, defamation of character, or endangering lives such as yelling, "Fire" in a crowded theater.

Copyright Law protects anyone's intellectual property irrespective of the medium of expression from being copied and claimed as the property of another.

The major exception to the protections afforded under Copyright law is referred to as the "Fair Use" law.

This concept is fairly new as laws go and is pretty much a United States interpretation of law. As Fair Use is derived from case law I will only give a brief summery of how it has been interpreted and applied.

Being that there is a necessity to encourage the free exchange of ideas while protecting intellectual property the concepts of Copyright and Fare Use of intellectual property were evolved.

Copyright law protects intellectual property while the Fair Use law encourages the free exchange of ideas.

Fair Use is the right to copy for various purposes (such as criticism, teaching, etc.) a relatively small portion of another's work for use in their own as long as credit is given to the original author. In some cases this can even be done without the authorization or compensation of the original author. There are a number of legal "test" that various courts have applied in deciding cases where copyright infringement has been charged and "Fair Use" has been sited as a defense.

But one is generally on safe ground when the copied section is small in comparison to the entirety of the new work, and proper credit has been given.

As authors we should be familiar with the laws that protect our intellectual property and respect the rights of our fellow authors. This article serves only as an introduction to the subject and as such only provides a place to start ones education in the important subject of Copyright.

This article cannot in any way to be considered as legal advice. Any author wishing to "copy" or otherwise use the work of any other author (alive or dead) should at least study the appropriate laws and at best seek the advice of competent legal council. copyright law

Write on...

Richard A. McCullough copyright law

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© copyright 2010 - Richard A McCullough is the creator & editor of the Fiction Writers source for Writing Better Fiction Faster and Selling More of What You Write.

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