The Labyrinth of Copyright

Here’s another post originating from my daily work as an editor. (As an editor you tend to assume nobody’s really interested in what you do all day, but I’ve been told this isn’t so.) What is copyright? And do I have it? First of all, a caveat: I’m not a lawyer. Copyright is complex and, to answer my second question first, yes, you do have it! So what is copyright? Essentially it’s the protection of intellectual property. As long as that property remains in your head, it’s yours alone. Once it’s expressed in writing, art of any kind, music, or even as a chart, it is automatically covered by copyright. If you want to use something someone else wrote, or produced, in your book, you need permission. Small quotes are generally considered fair use, but don’t push that doctrine too far! Fair use is listed as just that, a doctrine.

What many authors don’t realize is that your book contract is an exchange—you’re selling your copyright to the publisher for their services (they publish your book, promote it, register the copyright (it already has copyright, but registering helps to protect it legally), and handle the financial aspects of selling your book). You can’t publish your own work again without permission of the publisher. Sometimes I’ve had people ask me to use my artwork (from my own published articles) in their work. I don’t mind, of course, but I don’t own the copyright! If I published my work, the publisher has taken that copyright and I remain simply the author. If I want to publish my own published work somewhere else, I have to ask permission. Copyright, however, doesn’t last forever.

The only safe date before which material can be used without fear of infringement is 1922. Works published before then are in the public domain. Right now new works (such as this blog) are covered by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 more years. After that, unless the law changes, you don’t need permission to reuse these idiosyncratic musings. Not that that’s ever been an issue. I’m not a litigious person, but I do like to be cited. (Who doesn’t?) In any case, if you’re working on an academic piece, and you want to reuse somebody’s drawing, or an extended piece of writing, or even a tiny bit of a poem, you must have permission to do so. That’s what copyright does for you. The “fair use doctrine,” like most doctrines, doesn’t hold up well in court. If in doubt, just ask. Before you do, though, you might want to consult a copyright lawyer, just in case.

All opinions my own.

One response to “The Labyrinth of Copyright

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