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US copyright and permissions

What every writer should know


Confusion about intellectual property, copyright, and permissions abound in the self-publishing world. It can be difficult to know if you’re receiving the right and most updated information. Recently, I was privy to a discussion from a writer and lawyer who gave me the scoop on everything writer’s need to know about these hot topics before publishing their book.


Note: this blog post includes discussion of copyright in the US. The contents of this post do not contain legal advice and do not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Readers should contact an attorney in their area for legal advice regarding copyright as it pertains to their specific situation.



Intellectual property


Intellectual property can be broken up into three main categories: copyright, patents, and trademarks. For the purposes of this blog post, when I refer to intellectual property, I am referring to copyright, though trademarks are often a topic of concern for writers as well.


Copyright protects original works of authorship, including literary works, films, musical works, sound recordings, broadcasts, paintings, and blogs. Writers should know that as soon as they put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard, their work is protected. That’s it! It doesn’t need to be timestamped. It doesn’t need to be printed and mailed to yourself in a hardcopy form (yep, I’ve heard that one!).


Copyright


Of course, the best place to get started learning about copyright if you’re in the United States (where I work and where my primary clientele lives) is the US government copyright website. But I’ll address a few of the most common questions writers usually have about copyright in the course of this blog.


First, who is the copyright owner? In this case, for literary works, it’s usually the author.


Second, what is copyrightable? Writers should note that simply coming up with an idea, no matter how original a writer may think that idea is, does not make them an author with a copyright. Ideas cannot be protected by copyright. Strangely enough, recipes are also not protected, though the cookbook can be (if it includes original pieces of writing, such as stories). Websites are also not copyrightable; however, the content may be, especially if the site has extensive blog content. Writers may consider copyrighting their blog in chunks of a few months worth of posts.


Rights of copyright


The rights of the copyright owner are:


  1. Right to copy

  2. Right to distribute

  3. Right to public performance

  4. Right to public display

  5. Right to make derivative works


The copyright of a book lasts for 70 years after an author’s death. Now, the question remains: is an author required to register with the US copyright office in order for their work to have copyright?


The short answer is no. But the protections that come with a registered copyright can be very helpful! At the bare minimum, authors should include the copyright symbol, year of publication, and their first and last name on every copy of their work that they send out into the world.


You can read more here about the steps to take to copyright your work. It’s not a difficult process and can be easily completed online. Writers can copyright a work more than once. For example, an author may copyright their manuscript before sending it to an agent or an editor. Then, they may copyright the final version of the work before publishing or self publishing.


Permissions and fair use


Many authors may want to quote the creative works of others in their book. This could be a quote from a speech, a Bible verse, a quote from a literary work, or a song lyric. Use of copyrighted content in a written work can pose some challenges for writers who are unfamiliar with fair use laws. It’s important for writers to familiarize themselves with how to avoid plagiarism.


Some use of copyrighted material is governed by fair use. For instance, quotes from literary works may be included in a creative work with appropriate attribution. The same applies to quotes from speeches. Bible quotations can be included so long as they don’t constitute a large percentage of the final work (if from the NIV for example, which requires a permissions blurb on the copyright page of your book). If the quotes are from the KJV (which is in the public domain), then no permissions are needed. For more on quoting from the Bible, check this more extensive commentary from the Author Learning Center.


A special note about music lyrics and the public domain


Nothing makes me more sad than when I read through a client’s manuscript for the first time and stumble, unaware, across quoted song lyrics. Sometimes, there are many, many quoted lyrics (such as before each chapter), and other times a lyric may be quoted by a character and is thus pivotal to the meaning of a small section of the text. It is never fun to have to talk with authors about music copyright.


So is it possible to quote song lyrics in a creative work? Unfortunately, in most cases, no. I generally advise clients to leave song lyrics out of their work unless they can prove that the music can be found in the public domain.


The public domain contains works whose copyright has lapsed or expired and are thus available for use by the public. As of 2023, works that have been produced in 1927 or earlier are no longer under copyright protection.


For music though, things get a bit complicated. Generally, the above 1927 date can be applied to music recordings and lyrics. (Note: song titles are not subject to copyright and can be referenced in a creative work.) However, for songs recorded after 1927, permission from the copyright owner (sometimes the songwriter, other times a company who owns the songwriter’s property) must be attained in order to quote even one song lyric in a written work.


For traditionally published authors, permissions may be sought out by the publisher. Self-publishing authors, however, will have to seek out permission themselves. This can often be a time consuming process with no guarantee that the copyright owner will grant permission. Hence, the suggestion to leave them out entirely.


If you absolutely need to include music in your book see if you can reference the song by title. It’s also permissible to describe the lyrics without quoting them directly (such as, “she turned on the radio, which was playing a song by a popular country music singer about the singer’s ex-boyfriend’s cheating scandal”).


Who can help?


There are many resources across the internet that can help authors register copyright for their book. If you have questions or concerns about whether specific content you want to use in your book is in the public domain, whether you need permission to use certain content, or other questions related to copyright and fair use, it’s always best to check with a lawyer. Most editors have a general knowledge of fair use, copyright, etc. and can help point authors in the right direction or bring questionable material to their attention.


Most important, don’t think that if you’re self publishing you can get away with plagiarism. Every writer needs to assess the quoted content within their book and find out what steps need to be taken to protect themselves from potential legal trouble.


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