The Writer’s Guide to Copyright

This informational article refers to copyright law in the
United States only, and is not intended to be legal advice.

We know copyright is not the reason you became a writer, but whether you’re new to writing or a published author, knowing about copyright can help protect your rights. So, we’re here to help light the way on this dry subject. This summary will help you understand the basics of copyright and won’t give you too many grey hairs in the process.

What is copyright?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “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 Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.”

In layman terms, this means copyright gives you the right to specify how other people use your work. The law prohibits anyone from profiting from your work without your consent.

What are the rights of a copyright owner?

As the holder of a copyright, you may:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare “derivative works” (other works based on the original work)
  • Distribute copies of the work by sale, lease, or other transfer of ownership
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

Legally, who is considered an author?

Generally, you are considered to be an author if you created the work yourself.

However, there is an important exception to this rule: if you were hired to create the work, then you usually cannot claim copyright over the work. This is known as the “works made for hire” exception for claiming copyright. But otherwise, if you wrote an original work without being hired to do so, you may claim a copyright on your original work.

What if I collaborated with other authors to create my original work?

If you wrote an original work with another author or authors, then you may all own copyright over your work, provided that your contributions are inseparable and are merged into a unified whole.

However, if your work is distinctly separated — for example, if each person wrote a different chapter, then there are two types of copyright involved:

  1. Each contributor can register for a copyright for their individual work, which is known as a “contribution to a collective work.
  2. The second type of copyright here is called collective work as a whole. An individual author can register this type of copyright by obtaining permission from the copyright owners of the separate parts. The owner of the copyright in the collective work can then reproduce and distribute the individual contributions only as a part of that particular collective work.

How do I actually register for copyright and how much does it cost?

The actual registration process to get a copyright can be fairly straightforward. Visit this link to get started. 

Note that requirements include filing fees starting at $35 for simple copyrights involving a Single Application, as well as a copy of the completed manuscript.

Find the full list of fees here.

Do I have to register my copyright?

No. Technically, you own the copyright the moment you create a written work in a tangible form. For most authors, that means the moment someone can read your story or book, you own the copyright.

However, the benefit of registering your copyright is that by doing so, you create a public record. This public record enhances the legal protection available to you as an author. A copyright registration is required to bring an infringement lawsuit in federal court. Certain damage awards require registration as well, and the difference in award amounts can be significant.

If you notice an improper use of your work but have not yet registered your copyright, you might want to go ahead and register your copyright as soon as possible after you notice the infringement so that you can take further steps to protect your work.

How long does copyright last?

For works created on or after January 1, 1978, copyright lasts 70 years after the author’s death. 

For pieces published before then, the rules get a bit trickier. If you’re working with works dating before 1978, you can learn the finer details within the United States Copyright Office’s online resource about Duration of Copyright.

What kind of work does copyright law protect?

Copyright law protects works of authorship including literary works such as short fiction, short stories, novels, nonfiction articles, poetry, newspaper articles, newspapers, magazine articles, and magazines.

I had a great idea for a piece of writing. Can I copyright my idea?

No. Copyright law does not protect everything. For example, ideas, titles, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols, lists of ingredients, and intangible works are not protected by copyright law.

Where can I learn more?

The U.S. Copyright Office maintains extensive documentation about copyright law in the U.S. Visit their website,, to learn more.

That’s the basics!

Knowing the basics of copyright can help you continue writing with the security of knowing your work is protected by law.

Published by Lira

Shut Up & Write Community Manager Lira Samanta lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also writes speculative fiction and is currently at work on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter at @lirawrites.

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