If someone could explain - in the words of a layman - about copyright in general, I'd be much obliged. I'm still a long way from publishing, but I don't have the faintest clue how it works.

Does it differ from country to country? Are there any loopholes to watch out for? Is it just enough to put © on everything, or is there much more than that?

  • Welcome to Writers! This question is extremely broad and would be difficult to answer in its current form; entire books could be written about copyright. For a general overview, you might try browsing our copyright tag. Is there a particular aspect of copyright that you're stumbling on? Jul 15, 2017 at 17:34
  • Thanks for the kind welcome! I understand that the nature of the question is quite large, but I was looking for some general tips about copyright. What should I watch out for? Is it just enough to put © on everything, or is there much more than that?
    – WordBearer
    Jul 15, 2017 at 17:38
  • Have updated your question per your comments. Please have a look at our site tour if you haven't already, and again, welcome! Jul 15, 2017 at 17:53

2 Answers 2


Copyright is what it says it is, the right to make copies of a written work. Copyright covers a finished form of expression -- book, movie, etc. It does not cover an idea. There is no protection for ideas.

Copyright is automatic. As soon as you write down an original work, you own the copyright on that work. The copyright declaration is simply a piece of information to the reader telling them who owns the copyright. It does not create the copyright and the copyright is just as valid with or without it. It basically says, this is who you ask if you want to make copies.

Each country had their own copyright laws, but most countries are signatories to the Berne Convention which establishes basic principles of copyright law and binds each signatory country to respect the copyrights of the citizens of other signatory countries. In other words, your copyright is automatically protected in all signatory countries as soon as you write your work down.

Some countries will let you register a copyright to prove you were the originator of the work. Some people think you should do this to protect yourself against people wanting to steal your work. But this fear is unfounded. Publishers and agents are looking for writers, not individual works. If you can write a story worth publishing, they want to sign you as a writer, not steal your stuff. And Tony Soprano can make more money running protection rackets than stealing unpublished manuscripts.

If you post your stuff on the Web, occasionally some numbskull will come along and copy it to their site. Some think they are doing you a favor by giving you more exposure. Some are just trying to generate traffic. They mostly don't know copyright law from a poached egg. Suing them would be more trouble that it is worth in most cases. A letter threatening to report them to the hosting provider will usually suffice. Best advice: don't post fiction on the Web unless you are simply intending to give it away. All you are doing is using up some of the rights you were hoping to sell to publishers.

The only real criminal use of copyright is when some disgruntled unsuccessful writer spots some superficial resemblance between their work and the work of some big hit author like J. K. Rowling and tries to sue them for copyright infringement. But by the time you are a big enough name for these people to be want to sue you, you will have the money to fight them.

The real function of copyright, therefore, is not to protect your from manuscript thieves, it is simply the thing you have to sell to publishers. Publishers buy "rights" from authors, which basically means the right to make and sell copies of their work in certain jurisdictions for a certain period of time. An author may sell the copyright outright to a publisher for a fixed sum, but the more usual arrangement is that the author retains copyright and licenses certain specific rights to make and sell copies. This is why you need an agent: to negotiate those rights for you.

Copyright is not forever. At a certain point, the copyright in a work ends and it reverts to the public domain, meaning that anyone can then make and sell copies of it. This is why there are a hundred different copies of classic novels on Amazon for 99 cents a copy -- someone downloaded the text from Project Gutenberg, made an ebook, and put it on Amazon. However you will be long dead before your copyright runs out. (Rules may be different in different countries, but basically copyright belongs to you from the moment you write it till you die, at which point it passes to your heirs and remains in force for many years afterwards.)

Your exclusive right to make or to license the making of copies of your work are limited by the "fair use" doctrine. This says that people may quote a certain amount of your work in their work for the sake of criticism and various other purposes. By the same token, if you want to quote pieces of other people's work in yours, you can only do so up to the limits of fair use or you will have to ask for their permission, for which they may or may not charge you money.

Copyright law also includes the right to make derivative works. If someone wants to turn your novel into a musical, they need your permission. If you want to turn their musical into a novel, you need their permission.

If someone pays you to write something for them, this is considered "work for hire" and they own the copyright, not you. The rules for when something is considered work for hire are quite specific and you should look up what they are for your country.

Beginning writers often get mixed up between copyright and plagiarism. Plagiarism is the academic sin of presenting someone else's work as your own. It is important to remember that if you copy a section of someone's work and attribute it to the original author, you are not guilty of plagiarism, but you may still be guilty of copyright violation if your use is not covered by the fair use doctrine. Plagiarism can get you fired or kicked out of school. Copyright violation will get you sued.

As a beginning author, there are three basic things to remember about copyright.

  • It is yours automatically as soon as you write your work down.
  • Don't copy other people's stuff, even with attribution, except as provided for by fair use. Don't make derivative works based on their stuff either.
  • Copyright is the thing you own and can sell. Get an agent to negotiate the rights you sell to your publisher.

Finally, I am not a lawyer. This is the layman's summary you asked for, not authoritative legal advice.

  • That's more than I asked for! It was very informative. Thank you, Mark.
    – WordBearer
    Jul 16, 2017 at 8:40
  • Copyright is automatic. This is not quite right. In the US, if you don't file a copyright form, then your legal remedies against infringement are much more limited. If you're writing for a paying market, normally the publisher will take care of the registration for you after they buy your work.
    – user14498
    Jul 16, 2017 at 16:36
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    @BenCrowell Copyright is automatic. Proving ownership of copyright may be easier if you register. Owing something and proving you own it are two distinct things. But infringement prior to publication is not something you should be worrying about anyway.
    – user16226
    Jul 16, 2017 at 16:51
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    Though copyright is automatic, Ben makes an important point: US law offers additional remedies if the work is registered before the infringement occurs. The difference can be substantial. See NOLO Press's wonderful, and very readable The Copyright Handbook. Jul 16, 2017 at 21:29

I highly recommend The Copyright Handbook by NOLO Press.

It is very readable, and structured so that you can get either a quick overview or a more thorough understanding, depending on your needs.

  • Thank you for the suggestion! It does seem like a good source of information. I will add this to my reading list.
    – WordBearer
    Jul 18, 2017 at 18:09

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