Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A Question of Copyright by Fran Hodgkins

When I teach writing classes, I’m often asked, “Do I need to copyright my work?” The fear of having work stolen afflicts many writers, and so I thought I’d address it this this post.

What is copyright? 

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, it’s a form of intellectual property. It has two main facets: originality and fixed form.


What does "originality" mean? 

This may seem like a no-brainer, but let’s put it down in black and white. Originality means that a work is a human creation—you’ve created it yourself. It also means that a “modicum” (the Supreme Court’s word, not mine) has been involved in creating it. Certain things cannot be copyrighted, for example. If you have an idea to write a story about a donkey, you can’t copyright that idea. Nor can you copyright the idea of a heist of the Mona Lisa. This is often the fear that my students have — their idea is precious to them (as all our ideas should be), and so some sneaky publisher is going to read their manuscript and steal their idea. This is highly unlikely and should not stop you from developing your idea into an original story.


This concept of not being able to copyright an idea is what throws a lot of people. It’s been called the “idea-expression dichotomy.” You can write a story about a boy wizard and nobody can stop you. However, if your story shares common elements with a famous book series, then you are likely on dangerous ground. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, “. . . protection will extend only to the original elements that the author has contributed to a work, not to the work’s underlying ideas, which remain freely available to the public.”


Besides ideas, you can’t copyright:

·      Titles

·      Names,

·      Slogans, or

·      Short phrases.

Those expressions are covered by a different kind of intellectual property law: trademark. Copyright also doesn’t cover processes, systems, procedures, or concepts.


What is fixed form? 

A fixed form is any form—such as writing or recording—in which the work can be shared with others. When you write down your text, it is now in fixed form, and protected.


And that’s all you need to do.


Wait, what?

Don’t I have to file forms and pay fees and all that stuff? Actually, no. And this is the part that surprises everybody. By putting your original work in fixed form, you own the copyright. It is not necessary to mail yourself a registered copy and never open the envelope (a traditional way of establishing the date of creation, which folks still do).


However, registering your copyright gives you legal protections and you need it to enforce your exclusive rights in case of any legal questions. If you want to register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, you do have some homework to do. Forms need to be completed, copies submitted, and fees (ranging from $45 to $125 to start) paid. Traditional publishers register the copyrights of the books they publish.


In work-for-hire situations, the client registers the copyright under the client’s name. Why? Because although you created the work and put it in fixed form, you also sold it to the client. When a work-for-hire client send you payment, they buy the copyright from you and it becomes theirs. Yes, copyright can be sold. It can also be transferred, such as from a parent to child.


What rights does copyright give me? 

In short, it gives you the right to use the work. For example, imagine you publish a picture book about a spaghetti-loving dragon. You hold the copyright (you’ve published with a traditional publisher). That means you can sell your dragon book, write a series about your dragon (these are called derivative works), and transfer rights to make an animated movie based on your book to a movie studio.




Your work, registered or not, is protected for decades under the U.S. copyright law. Currently, works have a copyright term of the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. For works made for hire, produced anonymously, or written under a pen name,  the term is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation (whichever period is shorter).


The concept of copyright is so important to the creative vitality of the country that it’s actually in Article 1 of the Constitution. It was also defended in the U.S. Supreme Court case Twentieth Century Music Corp. v. Aiken “The immediate effect of our copyright law is to secure a fair return for an ‘author’s’ creative labor. But the ultimate aim is, by this incentive, to stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good” [422 U.S. 151, 156 (1975)].


Knowing that the expression of your ideas is fully protected, go on — create!  ©


For more info

To learn more, visit the following websites:


United States Copyright Office,


U.S. Patent and Trademark Office,



  1. Ty, Fran. This is an important topic that comes up all the time! Bravo for giving us "the skinny".

  2. Great post, Fran! Clear information on a topic that confuses lots of book creators. Thank you!

  3. Great information, Fran! Really appreciate your post

  4. Very informative! Thank you!