We‘ve all seen the copyright words across a page or trademark symbols. When I choose to use brand names in a story because they captured the tone I want to send, I must list them all on the copyright page. Okay, but how do we protect ourselves against copyright infringement as authors? We’ve all heard about literary piracy; people who buy an eBook, then offer it for free, or use major portions of it to construct their own novel.
Copyrights lawsuits don’t always favor the original creator. They only favor who has the most proof. A good example of this is Alexander Graham Bell’s lawsuit over the creation of the phone. He wrote to his father about the concept of a phone before ever creating it. That letter with its postmark awarded the creation of the phone to Bell as opposed to Elisha Gray who had a prototype, but no proof of its conception.
Many people use the postdated letter as the poor man’s copyright. I worked at a company once that changed dates on our postal machine to prove we sent out items earlier than we actually did. This type of practice which occurs in many companies undercuts the poor man’s copyright. Small presses that take on aspiring authors ask them to take out copyrights on their own work. Bigger presses will do this for the author.
Copyrights can range from $35 for online submission to $70 for a paper application. Online is better because it only takes about a month to process, but is immediate as far as rights to the work. Never ask for accelerated copyright because that will cost you several hundred dollars more. The fact you’ve applied for a copyright immediately identifies the work as yours.
What good does it do? It will protect you against online pirates. Often people who choose to self-publish never consider copyrighting. Online pirates are trolling Internet bookstores to look for self-published books that they can lift. Authors never know unless they continuously hunt for their own work. I’ve found my work in various magazines and newspapers I never submitted to. For the most part, I could do nothing since my work wasn’t copyrighted.
Often it is a monetary decision. If I am only going to get paid $50 for a story, then it isn’t worth $35 to copyright it. If I have the opportunity to earn several hundred or even thousands it is well worth the trouble. A copyright is recorded and a copy of your book is kept in The Library of Congress. You do have legal standing when you go after someone for stealing your stuff.
However a copyright doesn’t always save you when playing with the big boys. Dan Brown was sued for plagiarism in his book, THE DA VINCI CODE. Claimants included Clive Prince and his book THE TEMPLAR REVELATION, and Margaret Starbird’s book, THE HOLY BLOOD AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Even though their books were published much earlier, and had startling similarities to Brown’s, the judge ruled that no infringement took place. His ruling stated that the Templar Knights protecting the offspring of Christ was a common story plot. I guess you might think a copyright didn’t do too much for Prince or Starbird, but it did.
They had a legal right to sue. They also garnered some publicity. Starbird saw a sudden surge in people wanting her book to do their own comparison study.
The only thing you have to lose with a copyright is the price of dinner out. Not too much, when you think about the peace of mind it offers. Elisha Gray probably kicked himself over the fact he never wrote anyone to tell them about his telephone idea. Your copyright is your letter to a government friend who just happens to charge you to read it.