The Basics of Copyright

Today, I will talk to you about a relevant subject when it comes to comics or, in fact, any intellectual property (literature, music, film, and so on).  It’s copyright.  Copyright itself is a vast subject and going over it in detail would take up a whole blog in and of itself.  However, I can try to go over the bare basics of the topic and clue you in on other resources you can use to investigate copyright.  As a disclaimer, this blog post is NOT meant as a substitute for legal advice of any sort.  Anyone wanting to know more about copyright (such as registration) should consult your local laws and possibly a lawyer.  This information is more about copyright in the United States of America.  If you reside in Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan and so forth, you’ll have to check copyright laws there for details and procedures.  Anyway, let’s get this show on the road.  

What exactly is copyright?  The Random House Dictionary defines copyright as the following:

the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc.: works granted such right by law on or after January 1,1978, are protected for the lifetime of the author or creator and for a period of 70 years after his or her death.

To put it another way, copyright is a legal principle that allows you to control the work you’ve created, be it a comic book, a graphic novel, a song, a prose novel, a short film and so on.  Copyright gives the copyright holder all sorts of control over the creation they made.  They have the right to make copies of the work, the right to sell or distribute the work to the public, the right to create adaptations of said work and the right to perform or publicly display the work.  These rights and the copyright usually remain the property of the author though in some cases they can be transferred to others.

When someone infringes on your copyright, they are technically breaking the law.  If someone takes your comic book, puts it online and claims themselves as the creator, that’s an infringement on your copyright.  If someone were to sell or distribute bootleg copies of your short film or your rock album online, that’s also an infringement.

So how do you go about getting a copyright for your comic or creative work?  Technically, you don’t have to formally register for a copyright.  Under the Copyright Act of 1976 (a federal law in the United States), you are not legally required to register an official copyright  as of January 1, 1978 onward.  The moment you create a work, it’s copyrighted.  However, it can help you to put a copyright notice on your work – Copyright (Your Name)(Year of Creation) – that will suffice.  It can help though to register formally with your national entity governing copyright.  Here in the United States, this is handled by the US Copyright Office, a division of the Library of Congress.  You have to register your work with them by filling out paperwork (hard copy or online), paying a fee and possibly sending them copies of your work.  You will have to check with them for details as copyright law and procedure is constantly changing.  Besides the aforementioned Copyright Act of 1976, major updates to United States copyright law were made in 1989 and 1998.

In the United States, a copyright registration usually will last the lifetime of the creator plus seventy years after the creator’s death.

I should also emphasize that copyright does extend outside of your country as well.  Copyright laws must be upheld by countries that signed the Berne Convention; likewise, a host of other international laws, treaties and trade agreements do enforce copyright laws as well.

Copyright is not foolproof however.  Ideas cannot be copyrighted.  Likewise, work in the public domain are not copyright or can’t be copyrighted; in the United States, anything published before 1923 is considered public domain.

As for me, I have registered a legal copyright on Sunnyville Stories.  In addition to the official copyright, I do put copyright notices on the work and also legal warnings in my trade paperbacks to remind people that my work is guarded by both American and international copyright law.  The warning I use in my text (called “boilerplate” in legal terms) is something like this:

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including the use of information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Whew…that’s a lot of ground we covered.  As I said, covering the details of copyright is a challenge so from here on, you’ll have to do your own work about copyrighting your work and learning the finer points of protecting your creation.  A good reference (and one I use myself) for more about copyright is The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know by Stephen Fishman by Nolo Publishing.

That’s it for now, friends.  Till next time!

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About Max West

I am a freelance artist and the creator of Sunnyville Stories, an independent slice-of-life comics series.

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