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Tuesday 15 September 2015

How Do You “Get” a Copyright? Ellen M Kozak shares this week's For Your Information segment

Welcome to the WEP's For Your Information Segment

You may be at the beginning of your writer's journey or well along the road. A vexing question that pops up again and again is 'what about copyright?' So, today we have Ellen M Kozak an attorney in copyright, publishing, entertainment and media law from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to explain exactly How You "Get" a Copyright. 

Ellen, take it away...

It’s a question I’m frequently asked by writers, photographers, musicians, and visual artists:  “How do I get a copyright in my work?” 

Actually, you don’t have to do anything to “get” a copyright in your work.  You have it as soon as your work meets two criteria:  it must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression and it must be original. 

Although there is no copyright protection for facts or for an idea, the way in which you express those facts or ideas can be copyrighted.  Assuming that your work is long enough (and a haiku is long enough, although a name or short phrase is not), the next step is fixation.

In order to be protected by U.S. copyright law, a work can be fixed in any medium from which it can be read back visually or by use of an electronic or mechanical device. 

That allows for works that you have scribbled, dictated into your cell phone, or typed into your computer. But your work needs to be capable of being read back, so if you’re using odd or obsolete technology, it’s often best to have a paper copy as well.    

Originality means, essentially, that you thought it up yourself, without copying it from anyone else.  Originality is found in the way you express an idea, so a mere alphabetical list, no matter how long you spent compiling it, is not likely to qualify unless you were also selective in creating it.  You also cannot protect a mere list of ingredients for a recipe with a copyright.  However, if you attach descriptions to the things on that list, and those descriptions are in your own words - or if the directions for your recipe include anecdotes about your experiences in making the dish-- then the way you have expressed those facts usually passes the threshold for originality.

No search is necessary to determine if a work is original, and it is altogether possible that two people could create similar works without ever seeing each other’s work.  When that happens, the law considers both works to be copyrightable and each author owns the copyright in his or her own work - in the work as a whole, and in every part of it.   

When a work is created by more than one person, even if the contributions are not equal, the work may be a “joint work.”   All people who contribute copyrightable elements to a joint work are co-owners of the entire copyright in the joint work, and any one of them can exploit it without the consent of the others, so long as any proceeds are shared. 

This makes it important to have agreements with all people contributing creative content to a work - agreements that specify what rights, if any, each of the participants will have in it.

Assuming your story, song, painting, photograph, or other original work passes these tests -  that it is original, that it is fixed, that it is either solely your creation or that you have made appropriate agreements with other participants concerning copyright ownership-- you don’t have to do anything more to “get” the copyright. 

Acts like registering your copyright or putting a copyright notice on the work can make your rights more enforceable, but they are not required for copyright ownership, because the copyright exists whether these things are done or not.  

Thank you Ellen, we appreciate your expertise. Folks, if you have questions, please leave a comment. We will pass them on to Ellen, if she can answer them she will. 

That is it folks, as simple as that. "The minute you preserve the work in some form that can be read back, you own the copyright in it; basically, copyright ownership is that simple."

Understand this "You cannot lose a copyright unless you sign it away! U. S. Copyright further states that it must be in writing and signed by the copyright owner."

Ellen's article deals with US law which is federal and (basically) the same throughout the United States. Ellen tells us that the US and most other countries - while they usually have their own national copyright laws - are signatory to the Berne Convention (a multi-national treaty) which similarly reserves copyright to the creator of a work.

The Berne Convention was first signed at Berne, Switzerland, on September 9, 1886. The United States became a member of the community of nations that have signed this treaty as of March 1, 1989.

What this means is that if you are a writer or author who lives in one of the 164 countries that are part of the convention, you are covered under this copyright law. Countries include the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the European Union.

To mark your work as copyright all you need is the word Copyright or the symbol © (just type a parenthesis (then a C and then a closing parenthesis – do not put a space between the symbols. Or you'll see this ( C ) without the spaces you have this ©. Next is the date in which the work was first published, and then the name of the author. For instance, I publish all my work online with the following.

Your Name © 2015


If you are looking for legal help, please seek the laws of the country where you reside or publish.

Neither Denise nor I are attorneys and cannot offer legal advice. Our only goal in the publication of these facts was to give information and to aid the participants who voluntarily share their work with the WEP. You retain the right to your creation; we only offer a place to share and receive feedback.

The above link provides several copyright articles from Writers Knowledge Base, depending what tack you are taking on the topic.

 Writer's Knowledge BaseThe Writers Knowledge Base is a very useful resource. Here you can find the best articles covering just about anything you want to know about writing/publishing your book -how to write blurbs, synopses, elevator pitches, taglines...and, well, everything a writer needs to know.

Halloween is coming friends! Get creative!

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The WEP's For Your Information Segment How to "Get" a Copyright #WEPFF Write…Edit…Publish @YolandaRenee & @DeniseCCovey http://writeeditpublishnow.blogspot.com/2015/09/how-do-you-get-copyright-ellen-m-kozak.html

Copyright = tangible medium and original, is it that easy?  #WEPFF Ask Ellen Kozak. @YolandaRenee & @DeniseCCovey http://writeeditpublishnow.blogspot.com/2015/09/how-do-you-get-copyright-ellen-m-kozak.html


  1. Fascinating. Thank you. This ignoramus DID think that copyright was something that had to be applied for...

    1. You aren't alone EC. Ellen's post clears some points up for us all. :-)

  2. This is good information to have. Understanding the law can be difficult sometimes, and it's important that we as writers understand copyright. This post made things easy to follow and was quite helpful!

    1. Glad you found it helpful LG. Thanks for tweeting!

    2. Glad you found it helpful LG. Thanks for tweeting!

  3. I don't tweet, but since my Oct IWSG is somewhat about copy right I will link to this post and summarize a few basic posts. This is great, because it can easily be applied to blog posts as well as tweets and face book.

    I have seen some bloggers post a "this work is copy righted" on their posts with original writings, paintings, photo's, music; it is good to know if they do not specifically state that (for those who don't always follow basic etiquette) disclaimer, their work is copy righted.

    The thing that stands out to me with this, is writing first drafts of stories. I read many posts when the author states they "trashed" their original project, and started all over again. I had wondered how they might prove their "original" idea by not leaving the original ms saved in a word document. It is date/time stamped with each revision. I have my original women's fiction ms printed and dated; but probably will never be able to find the original, original. Ya know? In case of a copy right dispute someday.

    I should be so lucky, lol. But it is a circumstance that has intrigued me since so many blogger/authors inde publish standard tropes/verbiage.

    Thanks for the article Ellen.

    1. Yes indeed Donna. Could be hard to prove you own your work. I keep all my 2000 drafts of each piece of my work. Poor laptop groans under weight. But I went to a presentation recently where the presenter said only newbie writers worry about people stealing their work. Then there's the whole DMV or whatever it is thing, where people steal whole books and get away with it. Go figure. :-)

  4. These days it's so easy to take others' work and put it out that it's crazy. I have a cousin in the music business and, if you think writers have an issue with copyright infringement, you should hear his stories. It's a hard world to be in artist in. I was interested in reading what your guest had to say. Very informative.

    1. Lee, you're so right. No matter what you do others will steal, but it's still important to do what you can. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Great and useful information. I've saved the link above for further reference.
    Milwaukee, WI. Great place by a Great Lake. I live there. :)
    Thanks for sharing the above information on copyright.


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