Legal Terms of Respect for Writers #2

Installment #2 of my big takeaways about slander, libel, and copyrights from intellectual property attorney Renee Duff’s presentation this past Saturday at the NYC Self-Publishing Expo.

What should you do to copyright your book?  I’ve heard a number of people, including smart ones who have presented at conferences, suggest that you can take shortcuts instead of registering with the U.S. Copyright Office.  Have you heard about the “poor man’s copyright method,” of sending a copy of the manuscript to yourself by registered U.S. Mail?

The theory behind the “poor man’s copyright” is based on the fact that your copyright exists from the moment you create your work, whether or not you register it.  Enforcing your copyright does involve presenting proofs that stand up to legal scrutiny, that you are the originator of the material.  So, having a record of the date something existed and was in your possession previous to its use or publication by the “rip-off specialist” is helpful.

But according to Renee Duff, an intellectual property attorney who presented Oct 22 at the NYC Self-Publishing Expo, the rip-off specialists have ways to overcome the “poor man’s copyright” defense.  It may not work.

You can now register your book cheaply and easily online at the Electronic Copyright Office’s website, http://copyright.gov/eco/.  There are several advantages to registering this way:  The cost is only $35 per title; you can upload the material you want to register electronically; and the processing time, according to the Website, is reduced from 10 months for mail submissions to only 3 months for e-registration.  (Three months!  Well, it’s a Federal government activity, after all.  But that’s better than the ten months they say you’ll wait if you use the USPS.)

So, what’s protected?  Your writing, that’s what.  If someone plagerizes, in whole or in part, the language of your story, you could claim copyright infringement.  Or, you could choose to grant permission on an exception basis to specific persons or entities to reproduce your story.  Normally this protection lasts for your entire lifetime, plus seventy years.

The title of your book cannot be protected, nor can the mere name of a character.  However, the use of one of your characters by someone else beyond mere mention may be protected.

Beware: Even if you register, copyright enforcement is up to you.  There’s no government Big Brother searching for copyright infringements.  It’s always up to you to detect and then act accordingly, when someone has ripped off your intellectual property.

Renee said that copyright registration is by far the strongest tool available, in the eyes of the courts, to protect yourself against the bad guys.

At $35 per title, Renee’s advice seems right to me:  Any of us who are concerned enough about copyright protection to try the “poor man’s approach” should really be spending the $35 to do it up right.  Then (this is DiGrazie’s speculation, not the lawyer talking) maybe you can send a copy of the manuscript to yourself via reg mail, just for a little backup. That’s my plan!

I’ll share more of what I learned this past weekend about legal aspects of writing, in another day or two.

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