When do you Need a Copyright?

Many writers take ownership over their work; our writing is our personal treasure stash that we are willing to share with the world. But how do we share it? We need protection, right?

Well, here’s a question that I wish more writers would consider: When do I need a copyright?

First, a caveat. I am not a lawyer, so if you’re looking for definitive “ins” and “outs” of the law, visit Copyright.gov and the nicely spelled out “What is Copyright? from the SFWA.

Onto my point. I think one of the hardest things for inexperienced authors to wrap their minds around is the legal implications of copyright and when they should buy one. Here’s an example: So I was trying to find a group of writers online with some experience when I came across one that bought copyrights for every draft story they posted online. Not one of them would even consider using Creative Commons, which blew me away. When I had broached the subject, I received a flood of comments saying everything from “I don’t know how important copyrights are” to “I have to protect my work.”

I’ve heard so many writers rushing out to “buy their rights” without realizing what they are getting for their money — because once you have rights, shouldn’t you consider what it takes to protect them? If you don’t know what that means, you should probably talk to a lawyer who specializes in copyright law, because believe me, it costs a lot more than $35.

If you’ve read books or watched movies (which I’m assuming all of you do), then you’ve probably made the comment “Oh, that’s a rip-off!” or “Oh, that’s just like Rotten Toasters from the Nebula Verse!” I’ve often heard the “twenty percent” rule floating around whenever I hear pros talk about this sort of thing, that a work only needs to be twenty percent different from the original copyright in order for it to be considered a “new work.” Although I couldn’t find the source of that, I usually don’t concern myself with “copyright infringement” rules on that level, simply because I don’t “go there.” Why?

Simple. It’s too risky, and it could damage your reputation…indefinitely.

Consider those amateur authors who think that they can write within another author’s setting — and believe that they have every right to do so. Yes, I’m talking about “fan fiction.” Probably one of the biggest misunderstandings about copyright that I’ve come across, is the belief that a writer can “write within the world of X” as long as he (or she) doesn’t address the main characters. This is a big “no-no” and was easier to find in the copyright law; it’s under “derivative works.” No matter how much you may love Harry Potter or Aragorn or Lemony Snicket, if you write anything within their setting you are in direct violation of the copyright laws. You need permission.

Don’t believe me? Ask any publisher for any “licensed” product within the Marvel Universe what their rights are. And then ask them how hard it is to actually release their action figure, poster, or deck of cards. “Licensed” means “licensed,” and writing fan fic is not a good way to get your name out there if you don’t have permission. Trust me on this one.

Here are the questions I ask myself whenever I write fiction to cover-my-butt:

    (1) Was I heavily inspired by [insert popular novel title here]? If so, how similar are my characters? Setting?(2) Can I find the name of my book or my primary characters online? If so, change them.

    (3) Where am I posting my drafts? Do I trust the source?

    (4) Do I plan on selling the work? If so, go with Creative Commons until terms are negotiated through my contract. If not, why bother?

    (5) Are my editors bound by non-disclosure agreements until the work is released?

The point I’m trying to make here, is that writers write “to sell.” I have different concerns about copyright, because the rights to my work are often a point of negotiation since I am considered an “unknown” author. It is not uncommon for new writers to make a flat-fee of $5,000 on a first novel; and not retain several of their rights. If you own every copyright flat out, agents and publishing houses will sometimes shy away from you because you appear to be very inexperienced.

So yes, I do think that authors should care about copyright, respecting other’s works, and protecting their own. But I also think that the basic premise of copyright is abused all too often; contracts often cover these rights in print, and there are ways to protect yourself online at no cost to you.



Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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