Copyright FAQ  (Frequently Asked Questions)

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is a copyright?
  2. What do I have to do to get a copyright? Do I have to register?
  3. Do I need a copyright notice?
  4. What is the "fair use" doctrine?
  5. How does a work get into the public domain?
  6. What rights do I give up by granting permission to publish my work?
  7. What is the "deposit requirement" I keep hearing about?
  8. Are international requirements the same as for the U.S.?
  9. Additional information

    Do you have a question we didn't cover? Check the resources given below or send it to us !


  1. The goal of this document is to provide basic answers to the copyright questions we hear most often, based on U.S. and international copyright law. As you might suspect, this is only "the tip of the iceberg." For more complete information, including a reference to copyright law in Canada, please refer to sources that provide additional information on copyrights.
  2. The information summarized below applies primarily to work created and published after March 1, 1989. For work published earlier than this, requirements are stricter; for work published before 1978, many provisions of the copyright law are quite different.

 Home Page   Writer's Corner

(Updated May 16,1997)

What is a copyright?

A copyright ("copy right") is the right of the author to controlhow a creative work (story, poem, drawing, photograph, sculpture,film, play...) is used. This includes such rights as reproduction,distribution, performance, and display. It protects the actual wordsor images used to express an idea -- the idea itself is notcovered by copyright. Titles are also not covered.

From a legal point of view, a copyright is property thatbelongs to the creator of a work. Only the author can grant(sometimes called "assign" -- the terms are interchangeable) theserights to others, either temporarily or permanently. One uniqueprovision allows a transfer of ownership to be terminated by theauthor (or heirs) after 35 years.

If someone uses your work without your permission, it is calledcopyright infringement, and you can sue for damages and to preventfurther use. In certain cases, copying or reprinting is allowed underthe "fair usedoctrine".

In general, the copyright on work created after 1977 lasts for thelife of the author plus 50 years. Separate provisions cover worksmade by employees for their employers, called "work for hire".

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How do I get a copyright?
Do I have to register with the copyright office?

The short answer is You do not have to do anything to get acopyright. A copyright comes into existence as soon as you typeyour work or record it on computer disk ("fix it in some tangibleform"). You do not have to put a copyrightnotice on the work and you do not have to register it with theCopyright Office, although there are good reasons why you may want todo these things.

Your work enters the public domain onlyafter the copyright expires or if you place it there.

Filing with the U. S. Copyright Office is a legal formality thatcosts $20 (as of this writing), plus your time to fill out form TX.If you have contributed several items to periodicals, you may be ableto file them all on a single form GR/CP. Check with the CopyrightOffice for current details on fees and forms.

Note that filing is not required to establish your copyright, butit does provide some additional protection. "Timely registration" --either within a short period after the work is published, orbefore an infringement occurs -- creates a legal presumptionthat you own the copyright and entitles you to possible recovery ofwhat are called "statutory damages" -- penalties that may exceed anyactual economic damage (which can be very hard to prove). Timelyregistration can also enable the copyright owner to collect his orher legal fees if a suit becomes necessary.

The small cost and the few minutes spent filling out a simple formand sending it to the copyright office with two copies of the workmay be well worth your while. If you don't file and later have tofile a suit for infringement, you will have to register then, but thefee may be much higher ($200, I think) for "expedited filing". Ifyour work is such that infringement is a serious possibility, filingnow may be worth it.

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What's the correct form for acopyright notice?

First of all, according to U.S. Copyright Law and the BerneConvention, you do not have to place a notice on work created afterMarch 1, 1989. Earlier versions of the copyright law didrequire a notice, and some foreign countries still do. In practicalterms however, there is no reason not to include the notice, since ittends to deter infringement by making it clear that your work iscopyrighted. Also, if an infringement occurs, the notice also allowsrecovery of the full amount of damages since the defense of innocentinfringement is pretty well eliminated.

We recommend that you include a valid copyright notice on everycopy of your work.

The minimum form is ©AuthorNameDateOfPublication. The word "copyright" is notrequired, but may make the notice clearer to anyone who reads it andis required in some foreign countries.We recommend the following form of notice:

© Copyright AuthorNameDateOfPublication

If you are unable to print the correct symbol, (in ASCII computerfiles, for example) the word "Copyright" should be spelled out in itsplace. (People often use "(c)" in text files, but this practice hasnot, to our knowledge, ever been tested in court and we are advisedthat it may not have any legal standing.) Some foreign countriesrequire the © symbol.

The phrase "All rights reserved" is basically meaningless here,but may be required in a couple of foreign countries.

The "date of publication" in a copyright notice is the date thework is first made available to the public -- any distributionexcept to a restricted group such as a writers group. This includescommercial publication, of course, but it also could include readingit in public or posting it online. In general, you want to use theearliest date in case it later appears that someone else producedanother work that was based on yours. If a work is later revised, thenotice should contain both the original date and the date ofrevision. (That's why you often see software with copyright noticeslike "© Copyright 1993, 1995 Apple Computer " or"©1985-1994 Apple Computer."

Publication In Echoes: Echoes includes a copyright noticefor the magazine as a whole. This should fulfill notice requirementsfor this publication of your work.

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What is the "fair usedoctrine"?

The fair use doctrine is a set of guidelines to support educationand research, and literary criticism. In general, a fair use must notcompete with the author's publication.*

The following usually qualify as "fair use":

There are specific guidelines covering each of these types of use.Refer to The CopyrightHandbook or another source for more information.

Example:   Classroom Use

The most common question we hear concerns classroom use, so we'll go into a little more detail on the conditions under which a teacher is allowed to make copies for classroom use. Note that these are guidelines, not laws.

First of all, a teacher may make a single copy of an article, story, chapter, cartoon, graph, or picture to show or read to the class and this is generally considered a "fair use".

In some cases, a teacher can make photocopies for each member of the class if the use is brief and spontaneous

  • brief -- a single poem, a few verses from a long poem, an excerpt of no more than a few hundred words from a story or article, isolated charts or illustrations.*
  • spontaneous -- so close to the original idea of using the work that requesting permission would not be practical. The use can not be planned well in advance, be part of the curriculum or course plan, or originate from anyone but the teacher who will use the copies in class,  

* When in doubt, contact the publisher or author forpermission. You usually do this by contacting the PermissionsEditor at the publishing company. Specify exactly what you want touse and how you will use it.

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What does "public domain"mean?
How does a work get into the public domain?

"Public domain" simply means that the work belongs to the public.No one can own the copyright to material that is in the publicdomain.

Some examples of things that are in the public domain :

(Some of these may be eligible for protection as trademarks orunder state law.)

You may give copies of your work away for nothing, but you retainthe copyright unless you specifically state that it is in the publicdomain. (If you do place something in the public domain, you can notestablish any conditions for its use and you can not take it back,because it is no longer yours.) Work created before 1989 may be inthe public domain if it was published without a valid copyrightnotice.

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What rights do I give up when mywork is published?

You give up only the rights that are specifically listed in aletter or contract.
It is in your interest for these to be as specific as possible, andlimited in scope or duration.

It is very important to read any publishing agreement carefullyand understand just what rights are being assigned, for how long, andwhether the assignment is exclusive or non-exclusive.

Exclusive or non-exclusive: Simply put, an exclusive grantor assignment of rights means that no one else may exercise thoserights during the term of the assignment. (Not even the writer!) Anon-exclusive assignment gives someone the right to publish or useyour work but does not prevent you from assigning the same rights toothers.

For example, an assignment of "First North American rights" is exclusive (within North America) because you can grant only one publisher the right to publish something first.

An assignment of "One-time" rights is usually non-exclusive, but it is often agreed to be exclusive for a period of time (six months or a year), or in a particular region.

The Library of Congress may request non-exclusive rights topublish work in its programs for the blind andhandicapped. (Echoes requires all authors whosework is accepted for publication to agree to grant this non-exclusiveright to the Library of Congress.)

"Electronic" rights: In general this simply means the rightto publish your work in any electronic form -- on the Internet, aspart of a multimedia CD-ROM, as a portable electronic "book", or anyother digital form. If you're selling rights for commercialpublication, these rights should not just be "thrown in" as part of abroad assignment of rights, but should be a separate point ofdiscussion or negotiation.

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What is the "deposit" requirementI keep hearing about?

The copyright law requires the copyright owner of a published worksubject to copyright protection to deposit copies of the "bestedition" of the work with the Library of Congress, within threemonths of publication. This applies to every published work, whetherpublished with or without a copyright notice. (More information onthese requirements is provided in Circular 7d, available from theLibrary of Congress.)

Echoes registers the copyright for each edition of the magazine,and fulfills our deposit requirements by depositing two copies of themagazine. We have been told that this "probably" satisfies thedeposit requirement for individual works contained in that edition,but you should verify this for yourself. Of course, if youregister your copyright individually, you will have to providethe required copies with that registration.

(Echoes is not responsible for meetingindividual authors' copyright or deposit requirements.)

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Are international requirements thesame as for the U.S.?

Most countries subscribe to the Berne Convention and havethe same requirements. You should be aware, however, that a fewcountries require the copyright symbol, not the word"copyright". Also, a few countries require the phrase "All rightsreserved," although that phrase has no significance here.

If your work will be published in a foreign country, or needs tobe protected in a foreign country, it is important to contact someonewho can give you more detailed information.

NOTE:If you post your story on a computer forum oron the Internet, you might be subject to requirements for differentcountries.

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Sources ofadditional information

If you need a more complete discussion of copyright laws,including the "fair use doctrine" and other cases where use ofcopyrighted material is allowed, we strongly suggest that you referto one or more of the following:

American Society of Journalists and Authors

ASJA distributes a variety of material helpful to writers, including information on copyrights and contracts.
1501 Broadway
New York, NY 10036

ASJA web site


The CopyrightHandbook, by Stephen Fishman<< = =RECOMMENDED
Nolo Press, Berkeley,California

This is a very thorough discussion of copyright laws and procedures, detailed but well-explained. It includes sample forms for registering with the Copyright Office.
Nolo Press
950 Parker Street
Berkeley, CA 94710

or (510) 549-1976

Check out the Copyright Handbook Web page

Visit the Nolo Press Home page for a catalog of their many useful publications, seminars, articles from the Nolo News, lawyer jokes, and referrals to other resources.


The Writers Legal Companion, by Brad Bunnin
Addison-Wesley, Beverly, MA

This does not have as much information on copyright law, but doesinclude information on contracts and negotiating with publishers.

U.S. Copyright Office -- Don't overlook this sourceof valuable free information!

U.S. Copyright Office
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20559

Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia(Information on copyrightlaw in Canada


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