Does My Book Need Copyright Protection? Then, How Do I Get a Copyright for my Book?

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Copyright Bound Catalogs at the Library of Congress
IS YOUR BOOK PROTECTED BY AN OFFICIAL COPYRIGHT? These Library of Congress shelves hold paper copyright certificates bound into hardback volumes for the permanent archive.

Does My Book Need Copyright Protection?

Have you heard the old rumor that if you send yourself a copy of your manuscript using certified U.S mail that it automatically becomes protected by a U.S. copyright? Before I reveal the answer to that question, let’s explore exactly what a copyright is and whether or not your manuscript or published book needs one.

What Is Copyright?

“Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”[1]

What Does Copyright Protect?

“Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.” [2]

When Is My Work Protected?

“Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”[3] So the answer to the question of whether or not sending a copy via certified U.S. mail does the trick is: No, it’s actually protected as soon as you type “The End” on the last page.

Where Is My Work Protected?

The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, we honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. However, the United States does not have such copyright relationships with every country. For a listing of countries and the nature of their copyright relations with the United States, see Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States.[4]

Then Why Bother?

The obvious question is: If my work is protected as soon as it is “created and fixed in a tangible form,” then why do I need to go to all the trouble of applying for a copyright certificate?

The answer: “Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration” and Circular 38b, Highlights of Copyright Amendments Contained in the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), on non-U.S. works.[5]  You can pay a lawyer to apply for the copyright for you, or you can do it yourself.

Here at Front Edge Publishing, we take care of the application process for our authors.

How Do I Apply For Copyright Protection?

Here in the U.S. applying for a copyright starts at: https://www.copyright.gov/ The on-line registration portal walks applicants through the 8 to 12 steps. Once the questions are all answered, electronic payment is made and then you either upload electronically a copy of your manuscript or you can snail mail it, whichever you prefer.

How Long Does It Take To Receive My Copyright Certificate?

It takes approximately 7 months for an electronic registration to be completed. That is if you complete the on-line registration, payment and upload your book electronically. If you mail in your manuscript or book the processing time generally takes a few months longer. All of these time tables are assuming there are no hiccups in the answers you gave on-line and that a copyright processor does not need to communicate with you regarding your application. Your copyright certificate will arrive in the mail anywhere from 2 to 18 months after you submitted your application.

How Much Does A Copyright Cost?

The fee at the U.S. Copyright Office is $55 for most applications, or $35 if your application (1) has one author, and (2) the author is also the owner, and (3) you are just registering a single work (not a collection of photos), and (4) it was not a work made for hire.[6]

How long does a copyright last?

“The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors. To determine the length of copyright protection for a particular work, consult chapter 3 of the Copyright Act (title 17 of the United States Code). More information on the term of copyright can be found in Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright, and Circular 1, Copyright Basics.”[7]

I Heard Some Books Recently Lost Their Copyright Protection?

That’s true. In 1998 a group of corporations, one of which was Disney, advocated for  longer copyright protections.

“At the time, all works published before January 1, 1978, were entitled to copyright protection for 75 years; all author’s works published on or after that date were under copyright for the lifetime of the creator, plus 50 years. Steamboat Willie, featuring Mickey Mouse’s first appearance on screen, in 1928, was set to enter the public domain in 2004. At the urging of Disney and others, Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, named for the late singer-songwriter and U.S. Representative from California, adding 20 years to the copyright term. Mickey would be protected until 2024—and no copyrighted work would enter the public domain again until 2019, creating a bizarre 20-year hiatus between the release of works from 1922 and those from 1923.”[8]

On January 1st of this year, hundreds of thousands of books, musical compositions, paintings, poems, photographs and films that were first published in the United States in 1923 entered the public domain. It has been 21 years since the last mass expiration of copyright in the U.S. The last time this happened was in 1998, before we all had the luxury of Google. Now, all of those works can be easily accessed and used without fear of retribution.

[1] https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what

[2] https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what

[3]https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what

[4] https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what

[5] https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what

[6] https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ04.pdf

[7] https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-duration.html

[8] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/first-time-20-years-copyrighted-works-enter-public-domain-180971016/

About Susan Stitt

Susan Stitt is marketing director of Front Edge Publishing. Over the years, she has guided many authors through the challenging process of launching books and developing strategies that will grow readership. She also has worked widely with nonprofits. Now, she shares her expertise twice each month on our Front Edge Publishing website.