Querying Tip of the Week: All About “Copyright”

Since I haven’t really done much other than work on You Know You Love Me, I’ve decided to skip my “What I’m Working On” post. Stay tuned for a new blog posting schedule soon!


Today’s tips concerns an issue that should worry all writers: Copyrights. As usual, these tips are from the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents.

Copyright is a normal issue for writers to be concerned with. It’s natural to want to protect what you have created. As a writer, you also need to be informed to keep yourself from being sued for copyright infringement. So what do you need to know?

What is a copyright?

A copyright guarantees that the creator of a fictional work retains the rights to control their work’s reproduction, distribution, and how it can be publicly displayed. When someone violates a copyright by attempting to pass off another’s work as their own, the original creator can then sue for rightful compensation.

How long does it last?

Typically a copyright stays in effect until about seventy years after the creator’s deaths, though there can be exceptions. Your best bet for finding out whether a copyright is still valid is checking the U.S. Copyright Office at copyright.gov.

Do I need to register my copyright?

Your work becomes copyrighted from the moment you begin to write it, whether it’s in a word document, a notebook, or on a paper napkin. It is advised to put the word “Copyright” or the copyright symbol on your work when you let your peers, family and friends, or online readers look over your work. It’s best to leave these off when you are sending your work to agents and publishers because it looks amateur and they are aware that your work is already protected. It is suggested that you formally register your work for copyright in the case that someone does try to copyright it, as it will be further proof that the work is yours.

Picture Source: nkelber.com
Picture Source: nkelber.com

Does copyright protect ideas?

Copyright does not protect an idea. As long as someone does not use your characters, dialogue, exact plot, or passages, then they are free to write a similar story.

What about using songs, passages, song titles, previously published characters from other works in my work?

Song lyrics and other written passages are also copyright protected. You must obtain rights from the creators to use their content. Publishers generally will help assist you on this matter.

It’s also okay to use song titles as your story title (or chapter titles) so long as it isn’t copyrighted.

You cannot use a character that was created by another author without their permission. Many names, such as Harry Potter, are copyrighted.

What about mentioning the names of real people, movies, and the like?

It’s fine to mention names of real people, movies, TV shows, songs, and more in your work in passing. Mentioning that your character is watching Oprah doesn’t violate copyright. However, it’s best to only mention these people and things in a positive or neutral light, as negativity could be considered libel, or written slander.

What is libel and slander?

Libel is written, Slander is spoken. Both are considered to be words that inflict defamation of character. You can be sued for either. Publishers should be willing to help discard both before a work is published.




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