Protect yourself – Copyright and How It Works

In 1980, I wrote a number of scripts for the TV series M*A*S*H. None of them were ever produced—that is, I never received payment for what I wrote. What happened? I can only relay the facts as I knew them, and you can draw your own conclusions. I’d secured an agent with a major agency, and he attempted to sell my scripts. He was unable to do so, primarily because M*A*S*H used a “closed” writing team: their own writers wrote the full complement of each season’s scripts. If the producers bought an outside teleplay, they’d be paying an outsider and not their own writers. Not to be deterred, I discovered that my friend had a contact with a well-known actor’s agent. He agreed to hand the script to Alan Alda’s agent. Weeks later, my friend received a package in the mail: it was a copy of my script, accompanied by a letter on M*A*S*H letterhead from (and signed by) Alan Alda. He explained that he couldn’t read an unsolicited script, and as a result he was returning it unread. (Yes, I still have this letter.)
 
Curiously, however, the next season, a M*A*S*H episode featured a subplot that mirrored the main plot of my script. (M*A*S*H often employed a main plot/two subplot structure for each episode.) Sure, I was flattered, but I also felt that my material had been stolen. My work was protected–I’d copyrighted each of my scripts–so I could’ve explored legal action. But I’d written the scripts for fun; I had no intention of exploring a career in writing. (Little did I know that two decades later I’d be a published author!) Further, I was focused on my forthcoming chiropractic schooling (and cross-country move). Being young and naïve, I let it go.

Let’s explore the procedures for protecting yourself, and your work–just in case you don’t want to be as forgiving as I was. (Please consult an attorney for details on your specific situation. This is not legal advice.)

Q. How does a writer protect himself?
A. Copyright is not only easy, but it’s an effective means of protection. (I’m addressing only novels here. There are methods available for protecting other forms of creative expression, such as logos, trademarks, etc.)

Q. What exactly does copyright mean, and does it cost anything?
A. You’ve probably heard of the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C. This stoic and ever-expanding repository stores all the copyrighted works that are registered with the federal government. Visit the LOC’s website for complete information about what copyright is and how it works. In short, you fill out a two page form (downloadable from the LOC website, along with instructions on how to complete it), insert a check for $40 (check the pricing as it changes periodically), and mail in the form, your check, and a copy of your manuscript (what they call a “deposit”).

Q. Do I have to fill out this form and pay the Library of Congress to have my work protected?

A. No. Technically, and I guess legally (again—consult an attorney), a work is copyrighted once you finish it. That might mean saying “That’s a wrap,” (or, “Thank God, I’m finished”; or, “Man, that’s the best thing I’ve ever written!”) and saving it for the final time on your PC.

Put a copyright notice on the work, though my understanding is that it’s not technically necessary to do so. However, it costs nothing to do so. If there’s a well displayed copyright notice, it’s hard for a judge to buy a defendant’s claim of “Oops, I didn’t know it was protected work.” And, in my opinion, it’s worth having “full” protection. It’s an inexpensive way of protecting yourself.

According to the LOC, registering your work with them has specific legal benefits. Again, an attorney can provide more details.

Q. What can be copyrighted?

A. According to the LOC, copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, short phrases, ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. As it applies to novels, this does make sense: everyone has ideas. It’s how you express that idea, with characters, plot, setting–that’s what makes your work unique.

And you read correctly: titles are not copyrightable. That said, an exception would be a recognizable title of a classic, such as “Gone With the Wind.” There’s a legal term for this, but if you have any questions about whether or not your title infringes on some trademarked classic, consult an attorney.

Q. How long does it take?
A. In my experience, you’ll receive your copyright certificate in 4-6 months (on average), but it may take longer depending on their submission volume and processing constraints. There are also intangibles: it once took two months for my manuscript to get to the LOC. I have no idea what that mail carrier did with the package, but it obviously took the long way there. Be smart: use a tracking method such as certified mail, registered mail, or at the very least, delivery confirmation. That way, you also have proof that you put your material in the mail on a particular date.

Q. What’s the proper format for the copyright notice?
A. The © symbol or the word “copyright,” followed by your name and the year your work was first “published.” I usually use: Copyright © 2003 Alan Jacobson.

Q. How long is a copyright good for?
A. For works produced after January 1, 1978, a copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author (I believe it used to be 50 years). You do not need to renew it.

Q. Who is responsible for registering the work with the LOC if you haven’t yet done so when you’re offered a contract for publication?
A. Some publishers prefer to register it themselves. If you have not yet registered it, but now have a publishing contract, ask the editor if they will be registering it with the LOC or if they want you to do it.

Q. Does a publisher become owner of the copyright after you sign a publishing contract?
A. To the best of my knowledge (remember, I am not an attorney), you retain all your rights unless you specifically assign them to the publisher in the contract. My understanding is that the publisher is “leasing” the right to publish your work the way you’ve agreed to do so by contract. The copyright remains yours. (This is different from foreign/subsidiary rights or TV/movie rights.)

Q. Is a U.S. copyright valid in foreign countries?
A. Yes. And no. The U.S. has reciprocal-type arrangements with many other countries: we honor their copyright protection laws and they honor ours. But my understanding is that we don’t have agreements with all countries. And the reality is that even if the other country’s laws recognize your copyright, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be easy to recoup damages if your rights are infringed. A friend of mine once was on vacation in a foreign country and saw his books displayed in a store. Great, right? Nope. His agent had never sold that country the rights to publish his work. But it would’ve cost more to hire a lawyer in that country to fight the infraction than he would have gotten from any award he might have secured.

Disclaimer: I am not an attorney. If you have any questions about your rights, consult legal counsel. (If you are a member of the Author’s Guild, they have counsel who can answer basic questions.)