As writers, we want to use familiar things in our books to connect with a reader. It’s only natural. We do it in conversation all the time. “Remember that part in Harry Potter when…?” But in writing, the rules are different. Copyright laws can be a slippery slope. So, we’ve decided to discuss some copyright basics for writers in an effort to clarify what can and cannot be used in our writing.
Disclaimer: None of us on the Admin Team are lawyers of any kind. The information in this post is compiled from other articles dealing with copyright laws. If you are concerned about copyright infringement in your work, please seek the aid of a copyright lawyer.
Copyright Basics for Writers
To copyright something, there are three requirements you must consider.
- It must be a work of authorship. Basically, this means it has to be a creative piece that includes things like literary or textual works, sound recordings, musical/dramatic/choreographed works, works of art like pictures/sculptures/graphics, and digitized works like websites or computer programs. Any of these can be copyrighted whether published or unpublished.
- The work must be original. Copyright laws are a bit laxer on the idea of originality than other types of laws. These days, it’s difficult to claim something as totally original and never-before-seen. So as long as the work is not an exact replica or features heaps of plagiarism, copyright laws consider it original.
- The work must be fixed in a tangible medium. This means the work must be recorded in some physical way, shape, or form. A book must have a written draft. A piece of choreography must have a video. If the completed work is improvised or lives only in your head, it cannot be copyrighted.
Things That CAN’T Be Copyrighted
Let’s say you’re working on your novel (aren’t we all?). There are certain things you’d like to include to really make your story feel authentic, but you’re not sure if these things are copyrighted. There are a handful of things that actually can’t be copyrighted even if they fall under the above-mentioned categories.
An article published by Digital Media Law Project goes into great detail about what cannot be copyrighted. Here are the important ones to know.
The required level of creativity for copyright laws to consider something original is low. Facts don’t reach that creativity level and therefore cannot be copyrighted. Noncopyrightable facts include things like birthdates, telephone numbers, sporting game scores, and even the number of people at a historical event.
However, some facts are arranged in such a way as to be considered creative enough for copyrighting. Say you want to replicate a printed recipe in your own work. The way the recipe is arranged might be copyrighted by the original author, but the actual ingredients cannot be copyrighted, nor can the fact that mixing butter, flour, and eggs produce a batter. In this case, you can reconfigure the recipe and reword the directions without infringing on copyright laws. (But just in case, you may want to credit the original author somewhere.)
Works by the US Government
The following are considered uncopyrightable works created by the US government:
- federal reports (such as the census)
- speeches given by federal government officials while under employment
- federal statutes
- federal judicial decisions
- federal government press releases
The government may receive works created by others and present them as part of some of the above-mentioned materials. In this case, those works may fall under copyright laws.
Principals, concepts, or ideas cannot be copyrighted unless they are expressed in some form of tangible medium. Simply brainstorming a story idea does not give you the right to hold a copyright on it. You can only become the copyright owner if you put that idea in some form of physical expression.
If you come across an idea, principle, or concept, you can legally use it in your own work. For example, you can mention a scientific theory such as Newton’s third law. However, you cannot use an article or essay that discusses the findings of this theory without citing it. The essay or article is copyrightable.
Words, Phrases, or Familiar Symbols
Take this section with a grain of salt. In general, individual words, short phrases, and slogans don’t fall under copyright laws. They may fall under Trademark laws which is a whole other ball game. When in doubt, research it.
Public Domain Works
Once a work’s copyright term has run out, it becomes part of the public domain and therefore is fair use for anyone. Some works published between 1923 and 1989 may fall into the public domain if the original owner didn’t take the proper steps in following copyright laws at the time. Typically, works created before 1927 are part of the public domain.
It can be tricky to determine whether or not a work is part of the public domain, but there are a few rules to help narrow things down according to the Digital Media Law Project article:
- Creative works published before 1923 will always be in the public domain.
- Creative works published 1923 and 1977, without a copyright notice, is in the public domain.
- Creative works published after 1989 are not generally considered in the public domain, regardless of notice or registration, unless the author has dedicated the work for public use.
*Additionally, some published works have been released into the public domain by the copyright owner.
Copyrights take a very long time to expire, so it’s always best to check out the work before using any part of it.
The Copyright Notice and When to Add It
The copyright notice must include three components:
- the word “copyright,” its abbreviation (copr.), or the copyright symbol ©
- the copyright owner’s name
- the year of publication
ex. Copyright © 2009 by Diana Gabaldon
You can use the full name, an initial and last name, or just the last name. Additionally, a business name is acceptable as the name of the copyright owner.
It’s not necessary to add a copyright notice to an unpublished manuscript while querying agents. Traditional publishing houses will add the copyright notice for you during your book’s publishing process. However, it’s the self-published author’s job to include the copyright notice before publishing. For reference, the copyright page is just after the title page and before the table of contents.
That’s all she wrote!
About the Writer: Brigid Levi is a freelance writer and editor based in the Philadelphia area. She has three children, a husband-child, and a dog. When she’s not freelancing or working on her own writing, Brigid can be found under all the blankets with coffee, tea, or wine (depending on the time of day) and a sweeping historical fiction novel. She hopes to publish her YA fantasy/adventure novel in the near future! Find out more about Brigid on her website.