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One of the most common questions I get asked when speaking on digital publishing is how to prevent piracy. I still think piracy is less important than obscurity, but it is still important to protect your work. In this guest post, Jennifer Motian discusses how to protect your writing from copyright infringement.
Intellectual property (IP) considerations for writers are becoming more complex as the publishing landscape evolves. Managing your IP as an author has become more difficult than relying on your agent to negotiate a contract with the Big Six. Much of the IP protection work is falling to writers themselves, and some areas (such as e-publishing) are opening up increased opportunities for piracy.
Authors need to consider clauses in contracts when they publish traditionally, know the specifics of issues that can arise when self-publishing, and understand the subtleties of issues connected with publishing in unique formats such as anthologies and literary journals.
The basics of copyright
The primary form of IP protection for authors is copyright. Copyright protects the work of authors, artists, and others by giving them exclusive rights over original works they create to reproduce a piece and collect income derived from it.
After a fixed amount of time, the copyright on a specific work expires and it slips into the public domain. Until that time, if someone wants to use something that's copyright protected, they need the (ideally written) permission of the author and may be required to pay to do so.
How do I copyright something?
Unlike more complex forms of IP protection like trademarks or patents that require extensive legal filings, the process of obtaining a copyright on something you've written is fairly straightforward. Copyright arises when something original has been written. Technically, you do not have to apply for copyright. However, you do need to be able to document or substantiate your copyright in some way if you ever need to defend that copyright in a legal context. Several options for this exist.
- Use a copyright registry that will retain documentation and copies of works should you need a legal witness in the case of copyright infringement.
- Take a full copy of the document that you're copyrighting, with the words “copyright + your name and the date” and seal it into an envelope. Send yourself a copy via registered US mail and do not open it. You've effectively made the United States postal service a witness to your copyright.
- Register with the US Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). If the book is published in the United States, two copies need to be submitted, along with the necessary forms and a payment. Registration with the US Copyright Office is the best option in the case of a copyright challenge that needs to be legally resolved. You will receive a certificate of copyright certification and related documentation.
Novels and stories that are traditionally published will be governed by a contract with the publisher. Publishers typically register copyright on behalf of the author, if it has not already been done. The author will retain the copyright, but grant specific rights to a publisher regarding the production, distribution, and sale of a specified work.
Each contract is different, but there are several elements to pay attention to. What percentage royalties are you getting on the piece, and is this in line with industry standard? Are you giving the publisher exclusive or non-exclusive rights (meaning you could publish the story elsewhere)? Do your rights cover specific formats (e.g. print, audio, or electronic) or specific geographies (the United States, all of North America, or global)? It's important to have a lawyer or experienced agent review any contract for details.
Self-Publishing & Indie Publishing
Books that are indie or self-published also fall under the author's copyright. Since no publisher is involved, authors retain all rights to the book. Typically, if the author participates in distribution platforms such as Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook, it's important to review the terms of service.
For example, authors publishing an e-book with Amazon and on other platforms simultaneously currently grant Amazon the right to adjust the price equal to the lowest price offered on the book by any other vendor. In the case of a self-published book, it's especially important to consider taking some step to register your copyright. E-books are at special risk of piracy, particularly when they are published on platforms that do not employ digital rights management technology.
Anthologies & Literary Journals
When contributing chapters to an anthology or submitting a short story to a literary journal, authors also retain copyright. Typically, a contract will be signed that grants the publisher or journal certain rights.
Short contributions can be registered with the US Copyright office, if desired. “If the work is a contribution to a collective work, and published after January 1, 1978, one complete copy or phonorecord of the best edition of the collective work or a photocopy of the contribution itself as it was published in the collective work.”
What about Creative Commons licensing?
A Creative Commons license allows for the distribution of original, copyrighted works as long as certain conditions are met. Typical conditions include that the work is not altered in any way and that proper attribution is made to the author. Conditions may also include that the item is not distributed for monetary gain. Creative Commons licenses most typically apply to self-published, independently published, and pieces distributed via the web. In order for a Creative Commons license to take effect, a document must explicitly be noted as being under that specific license.
What can I do about piracy?
When you, as an author, encounter any of your copyright protected books that have been pirated, what can you do? Here are a few steps.
- Submit a take-down request to the site illegally posting the book or the vendor selling it. A sample Digital Millennium Copyright Act compliant take-down request can be found at: www.ckpaynter.com/Piracy_Handout2011.pdf
- If your book was published via a publisher, notify your publisher as well. They may have specific tools or resources at their disposal to help you.
- Notify other authors or publishers whose work you note on piracy sites or in pirating stores. Multiple individuals applying pressure may be most effective to get a site or vendor to take action.
- If necessary, consider legal action against a specific pirate or entity. This can be a frustrating and expensive process. If you want to go the legal route, begin by contacting an attorney.
Do you have any questions about intellectual property? Please do leave a comment below.
About the Author
Jennifer Motian writes for Red Chalk Group. She's interested in intellectual property issues as they relate to start-up companies and individual artists.