How freelance writers secure copyrights-Part 1 of 3

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How do you secure the rights to your freelance work – written material you create?

An email from a vendor I have heretofore trusted flamed in uppercase declaration,

“Act NOW! Copyright your writings, your Web site, your very name. Thwart unscrupulous others bent on stealing your work for their nefarious purposes.”

That’s a fate freelance writers, artists and designers are concerned about. And the brilliance of the vendor’s scheme is – I can hire them to “copyright” my work for the low, low fee of $150 per copyright. Stiff on a freelancer’s budget. My experience as a writer, some paralegal training and research made me aware that I don’t have to plunk down my bucks to fully protect my work. Neither do you. Save those dollars to invest in your future.

This is part 1 of a multi-part look at copyright issues for freelancers.

You needn’t shell out a brass farthing to copyright writings or creations

It pays, especially in today’s blizzards of bogus, kinda bogus and really bogus email offers, to know the basics of copyright and how it does and does not apply to your work. What’s the cost? Anywhere from nothing to just under $50, depending on your personal goals and needs and the current U.S. Government fee. Here’s how it works.

Copyright is unalienable right if you author a work that exists in tangible form, according to the U.S. Government Copyright office. The right is linked to the U.S Constitution,and applies to published and unpublished works. You can’t copyright an idea, or an intent, your hopes for the future, or anything written by the U.S. Government (anything authored by the government is public domain in the U.S.)

But literary works, musical works, dramatic works, pantomimes and choreographic works, pictorial, graphic and sculptural works, motion pictures and audiovisual works, sound recordings and architectural works, qualify. You can, the government notes, consider these categories quite broadly – seeing computer programs as literary works and maps or plans or blueprints as graphics. Web sites might qualify if everything you put on the site came from your creation, not from a template or borrowed code, scripts or graphics.

Is there a catch? What can’t be copyrighted?

The snippets of dialog floating through your head as you showered this morning can’t be. The outline of your next novel or an email describing what you might write next week probably can’t. But rest assured, the government sees any completed, tangible creation you author copyrightable, if it is fixed in a copy or phonorecord and you can prove you created it. Again, the definitions of copy and phonorecord are very broad. Proving you created it is simply, in many cases, a matter of committing the work to paper or a computer file and securing proof of a date.

How do you secure copyrights?

Easy to do. If written on paper, take the document to the post office, buy a postage stamp for it and ask them to cancel the stamp on the document. Irrefutable proof that it at least existed on that date. Or mail the writing to yourself, label the envelope with title and details, and file it, unopened when your mail carrier delivers it to you. If the creation exists on a computer file, the software will date the original file the day you create it, and it will record each date that you alter it. Permanently copy the file, including date detail, to a CD, floppy, or DVD. Experts agree that will likely prove existence. Use your imagination.

The beauty of the whole system is that your work, your creations, are copyrighted, legally and forever more, on the day you commit them to a copy or a phonorecord. If it’s that simple, where do fees come in? Why do you need the government at all and what are you missing? The plain answer is you can register your copyright with the Government Copyright Office for under $50 if you choose to. Most publishers do – recording companies, magazines and so forth, because registration creates a public record of your rights, and you can specify which rights you are claiming.

The complicated answer is, as your legal expert will tell you, if someone steals your work and you want to pursue her in court know this:
Date proof may be enough ammunition to warn off a would be interloper with a strong letter, but the rules say you can’t defend an unregistered copyright in court. The really slick component of this copyright situation is that you can register your rights at anytime during the life of the copyright. (Some lawyers hold that you can register your copyright after you are aware of an infringement.) Registration is done by mail, by downloaded form or electronically.

In days gone by, you could register an unpublished work but if it became published later on, you would have to re-register it. Now, one shot does it, though you can register a second time after publication if you choose to (which your publisher will do, if you have one, to protect their corporate rights).

Read part 2 of this series

Read part 3 of this series

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  1. Claiming rights to freelance writing - Part 2 of 3 « ontext.com - July 27, 2009

    […] How freelance writers secure copyrights-Part 1 of 3 […]

  2. Register your freelance writing copyrights - Part 3 of 3 « ontext.com - July 27, 2009

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  3. How freelance writers secure copyrights-Part 1 of 3 | Adobe Tutorials - August 22, 2009

    […] How do you secure the rights to your freelance work – written material you create? An email from a vendor I have heretofore trusted flamed in uppercase declaration, “Act NOW! Copyright your writings, your Web site, your very name. Thwart unscrupulous others bent on stealing your work for their nefarious purposes.” That’s a fate freelance writers, artists and designers are concerned about. Read the original post: How freelance writers secure copyrights-Part 1 of 3 […]

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    […] I wish more people had read this three-part series – I felt it was worthwhile to learn about how U.S. copyrighting protects your work. The cool part? You needn’t spend a dime to be protected. […]