In the United States, no work created since 1923 has entered the public domain by means of the expiration of the copyright. Coincidentally enough, the date is just prior to the advent of Mickey Mouse. Works that did expire were retroactively given their copyright back. You can be sure that, if no one does anything to stop it, the length of time that a copyright applies will be extended yet again by lobbying on behalf of a cadre of corporations that hold intellectual property. This is unconstitutional.

Copyright lasts the life of the author plus 70 years. And that's if the owner is an individual; if the owner is a corporation, the copyright lasts 95 years. By any measure, the terms of current copyright law do not meet the stated intent in the Constitution of "limited times."

Currently, private companies or nonprofit companies can possess the copyright for legal code, meaning that they can charge private citizens and the government itself to print the legal code, or even get a copy of it to read. At times, these charges have been as large as $700. A United States Federal District Court and a United States Federal Appeals Court Panel have ruled private copyrights of legal code to be legal.

I wrote this article for the online poetry journal, beatnik - . It's intended as a simple guide to copyright laws, particularly as they apply to writers. It is a basic guide to copyright law, an area that many amatuer writers may not understand fully, or may have misconceptions about.

Copyright is an issue that all writers should be aware of, and understand properly. Most people have an idea of what copyright is, but may not fully understand how their work is protected, the extent to which it is protected, or what they need to do in order to secure copyright on their work.

This article aims to provide a general overview of copyright, particularly in relation to written works such as poetry. If you have specific questions relating to copyright law, you should contact the copyright body in your country, as laws vary depending on what country you are in. In general though, the basic principles are the same worldwide.

What exactly is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection for original works of authorship. Forms of work include literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works, although other forms of work are also protected.

It is important to realise at this point, that copyright covers your original expression of the idea, not the idea itself. You cannot claim copyright on an idea - try to imagine if one person could claim copyright on love.

Copyright ownership on a piece of work gives the author certain rights. These include the right to:

Reproduce the work
Perform the work in public
Display the work publicly
Distribute copies of the work publicly, whether by sale or some other form of transferring ownership, rental, or lease.
Selling a copy of your work does not transfer any form of copyright ownership to the person buying it. You still maintain full copyright ownership.

What do you need to do to secure copyright on a work?

Copyright protection is automatic for original work you have created. From the time the work is created in a fixed format, you own that work's copyright, and are protected by the laws of copyright in full.

Your work is protected whether published or not. The original poem you have written in your diary at home, that may never be seen by another living soul, is protected by copyright.

Some countries, such as the United States, provide a registration system for copyright. For a fee you may submit your work, and have the copyright on that work registered - in the US, this is done by the Library of Congress. Although this system is available, if you choose not to register your work, your rights under copyright are not diminished in any way. It is almost a form of insurance, against future disputes regarding copyright on your work. If you are ever involved in such a dispute, having your work registered will turn the odds significantly in your favour.

Other countries, such as Australia and England, have no official registration process. If a dispute arises, and it cannot be resolved by negotiation, it may be necessary to go to court to settle the dispute. Claims such as this are rare however, and the potential costs involved are a large discouragement to any person making a false, or petty claim.

The © Symbol

The copyright symbol is used to indicate that a work is protected by copyright, as well as who holds that copyright, and the year the work was created. The format for placing such a notice is © (Author's Name) (Year Created) - eg © Bill Smith, 2001. The copyright notice is an optional notice you can place on your work - it is not required to secure copyright, not including it will not have any effect on your rights. It is useful for indicating to anyone that what they are reading is copyrighted however. There are no formal procedures involved with placing such a notice, apart from the format of the notice as indicated above. No registration is required, no notice needs to be given.

What is not covered by copyright?

As mentioned previously, the idea you are basing your original work on is not copyrighted - only the expression of that idea. There are also some other things that are generally not covered by copyright.

You cannot copyright a name, title or slogan. Copyright covers literary works, and it is generally held that these are not literary works. Names that have failed to be held as copyrighted in court include Exxon, the name of a company, and Opportunity Knocks, the title of a television show. Although you are unable to claim copyright on names and titles, there may be other consumer protection laws in your country that cover this area. For example, you are unable to copyright a band name, but it could be possible to register that name as a trademark, or a business name.

Anything that is not recorded in a tangible format is not covered by copyright - your work must be in a fixed format.

Further Information As mentioned at the beginning of this article, copyright laws vary from country to country, particularly once you begin to look at the specific aspects of the law, such as the length of time until copyright expires. For more information, contact the copyright organisation in your country:
Australia -
UK -

This describes a technique that can help you prove that you are the rightful owner of a piece of software or data, although it can easily be used to show your ownership of any idea or object.

  • Create a copy of your software/data on removable media. A write-once CD-ROM is preferable but floppy disk is also OK.
  • Write your name and the date on the media.
  • Place it in an envelope, seal it and sign your name over all of the seals of the envelope.
  • Mail the envelope to yourself, or your lawyer, by recorded delivery. This will place an official date-stamp on the software/data.
  • Keep the envelope in a secure location, for example, a safety deposit box.
In a dispute over ownership, if you can produce this and have it opened in front of witnesses, while the other party cannot, you have a strong argument for your ownership of the contents of the envelope.


All law is compromise: my right to swing my metaphorical elbows just so far as they don't hit you in the metaphorical chin; to speak but not to libel; to read a modern novel, to sell or lend it even, but never to copy or distribute copies without permission. And compromise can be quite elegant, weighing the separate rights of individuals against one another (and against society at large) in such a way that everyone involved feels, more or less, that he has not been shorted. But any balance tends toward amendment, collecting, over time, eccentricities and quirks that come to overshadow the simplicity of the original compromise.

This is a discussion of copyright, a complex and often misunderstood mess of revision that is very central to our collective culture, as it defines just which pieces of our art are really ours. This discusssion pertains, more specifically, to US copyright law, and is the first of two companion writeups: This one will concern itself mainly with facts (what copyright is and how it got to be that way), the second, "copyright extension," concentrates on opinion-based matters, mostly concerning the amendment of copyright law and extension of the length of copyright protection.

Why copyright?

The purpose of copyright is often stated in terms of compensation: There is the suggestion on the part of some copyright owners that they are somehow deserving of copyright due to their production of a certain property. This intellectual property which they have spent money and time producing is theirs, they own it, and they have a right to its fruits. There is a general understanding that artists and authors should be rewarded for the work they have done. These points are arguable from a practical point-of-view, but the stated and intended purpose of copyright is not as a reward. Copyright exists as an encouragement toward producing further works. Copyright exists, in the end, to encourage a vast pool of "useful arts" that benefit society, that are owned by society, that can become the basis for works in the future. Copyright is a results-oriented policy, an engine driving the ultimate public domain.

A little history

Soon after the invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century, it became clear that the ability of printers to reproduce books cheaply and quickly was a threat to publishers. Following a period in which publishers policed the industry themselves, a British law was passed that created the concept of copyright. The Statute of Anne, passed in 1710, established a fourteen year period in which the owner of a work (the author) controlled the copying of that work. It also allowed him one fourteen-year renewal.

After the American Revolutionary War, but prior to the US Constitution, a number of states adopted copyright provisions similar to the Statute of Anne. Unfortunately, many of these were incompatible with one another. As a resolution to this problem, and in a show of support for the benefits to literacy and learning that copyright should bestow on the new country, the authors of the US Constitution included the following language in Article I, Section 8:

The Congress shall have power . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.

This clause allowed for both copyright ("useful arts") and patent ("science") legislation on the part of Congress. Three years later, the Copyright Act of 1790 was passed, implementing this clause. It granted authors of maps, charts, and books the "sole right and liberty of printing, reprinting, publishing and vending" that work for a similar period to the Statute of Anne and the prior state laws.

American copyright law was not amended significantly until 1831, when the initial length of copyright was doubled (to twenty-eight years). In 1909, the renewal period was likewise doubled. And, as a result of the newly-developing music industry, the scope of copyright was widened, covering original works in general (instead of just books, maps, and charts).

Throughout the twentieth century, in anticipation of an international copyright standard (most of Europe had, by 1909, granted copyright holders the term of the life of the author plus fifty years), Congress passed a number of short extensions to copyright terms. The intent was to prevent works that had not yet fallen into the public domain from doing so. This culminated in the passage of the Copyright Revision Act of 1979, an extensive overhaul of copyright law. Extending copyright to life plus fifty years (in preparation for joining the Berne Convention), it also codified many copyright concepts that had existed for years only as legal precedent (fair use, for example, had been established in 1841) and outlining a set of policies concerning libraries, including the use of photocopies for educational and archival purposes. This revision also granted copyright protection to unpublished works.

In 1988, the US joined the Berne Convention, a set of international copyright standards. The main change in copyright law brought about by this was that all original works were now, by default, protected by copyright. Prior to this, the author was required to affix the word "copyright," the abbreviation "copr.," or the symbol "©" to a work, along with the copyright owner's name and the year in which it was created if he wished to be granted protection. From 1989 onward, for a new work to be considered "public domain," it must be explicitly marked to that effect.

The Audio Home Recording Act, a clarification of the rights of consumers to make home recordings and the rights of manufacturers to produce recording devices, was passed in 1992. It also granted musicians a small royalty on the sale of recording hardware.

In 1998, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was passed. Named for the recently-deceased musician-turned-lawmaker, it extended copyright by another twenty years. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, commonly known as the DMCA, was also passed in 1998. It added provisions to copyright law that criminalized the circumvention of copy-protection technologies and to protect internet providers from liability should their subscribors violate copyright using the providers' services--provided they follow certain guidelines.

US Copyright FAQ

What is copyright?

Copyright is a monopoly granted by the government to the author or authors of an original work for a limited time. These authors have the sole right to reproduce, distribute copies, perform publically, or display publically the work in question. They also have the sole right to prepare derivative works. Copyrights are transferrable.

What can I copyright?

Copyright protection covers all "original works of authorship." These include literary works, musical works (including any accompanying words), dramatic works (including any accompanying music), pantomimes and choreographic works, pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works, sound recordings, and architectural works. These are quite flexible, and if it doesn't seem to fit in any of these catagories, it can probably safely classified as a "literary work." Copyright does not extend to cover ideas, facts, or processes.

What is fair use?

Fair use is the provision under copyright law that allows copyrighted material to be used, legally, without the permission of the copyright owner, in ways that would ordinarily violate that copyright. When a critic quotes a film or a novel in the course of a review, he is allowed to do so because of fair use. The only way to be certain whether a specific use falls under fair use is to test the matter in court. Relevant to the matter, though, are these questions: For what purpose was the work excerpted? How much of the work was used? What type of work was used? What effect did the use have upon the copyright owner? Educational, non-commercial use that is not damaging to the copyright owner seems to have quite a bit more leeway than commercial use that does.

There is some suggestion that the DMCA has changed fair use policy (though it states that it does not). For a discussion of that question (perhaps not the most even-handed one), I direct you to here and here.

What is first sale?

First sale is the doctrine that once a work (a book, a CD, etc.) has been sold, the owner of that book or CD has the right to lend, re-sell, or "dispose of" it without restriction or royalty charges. The right to lend, however, does not apply in the case of computer software, following an amendment to the Copyright Act passed in 1990.

What is the public domain?

The public domain is the commons, the group of works that are free to use, reproduce, distribute, and everything else. Anything that is not protected by copyright is in the public domain.

How do I get a copyright?

Copyright is established the moment your work exists in a "fixed form." If you wrote it, it's already copyrighted. Or if you recorded it. Or painted it. And if you can't think of a form you can fix it in, it's probably not copyrightable.

Do I need to put one of those © things on it?

No. Prior to March 1, 1989, copyright works were required to bear "©," "Copyright," or "Copr.," along with the year of publication and the name of the copyright owner. Since that date, works are copyrighted by default, and are only placed in the public domain if they state explicitly that they are in the public domain.

Do I need to register my copyright?

No. You can register it if you really want to, making your copyright ownership a part of public record. To find out the current registration process, see At the time of this writing, the cost of registration is $30, and the process is to send a completed registration form, your $30 fee, and a copy of the work in question, all in the same package, to the Library of Congress's Copyright Office.

What about a "poor man's copyright"?

This is the "mail it to yourself" strategy, keeping an unopened envelope that contains your work and has been postmarked at a prior date as proof you created the work. Sorry, but envelopes can be mailed unsealed. Postmarks can be faked. And if you really think you need this sort of protection, that registration is probably worth the $30 filing fee. With it, you get actual legal protection that would be admissable in court. But mailing it to yourself is a neat trick to show your friends, and you are guaranteed to get a package in the mail, so I suppose it's not completely worthless.

Can I copyright a name, a fact, an idea, a process...?

No. Names can be used as trademarks, and processes can be patented, but copyrights apply exclusively to original works that are placed in a fixed form.

Do I need to defend my copyright for it to remain valid?

No. That's probably trademarks you're thinking of. You retain your copyright rights, exclusively, as long as you do not transfer them, and as long as your copyright hasn't expired.

How long does my copyright last?

The rest of your life plus seventy years. Or, if it's a work-for-hire, it's either 95 years from date of publication or 120 years from creation (whichever is shorter).

Can I copyright email? Writeups?

You already do. Unless you declare that each email is in the public domain, every email you've written has been copyrighted. This goes for usenet, blogs, writeups on e2. Everything you write. And technically, every email you forward is a copyright violation if it doesn't contain language granting you permission to distribute it.

What about fan fiction and parodies?

With fan fiction, you can write it only if you have the copyright owner's permission. Preparing derivative works is one of the rights granted to the author under copyright. To use characters, likenesses, stories, sound samples, etc. from a copyrighted work, you need permission--except in the case of fair use, which is often used to justify parodies (which would otherwise be considered derivative works). Parodies, as a form of criticism and as one type of derivative work that would likely never receive permission from the copyright owner, are granted a good deal of leeway legally.




fat ouroboros
meeting your logical end;
self-piracy bites.

Capitalism is based upon the principle of moving physical objects that, by their nature, cannot be copied.

The hacker spirit is based upon the principal of sharing information that, by its nature, cannot be restrained.

The problem, if you can call it that, is that products are being digitised. This process transforms them from objects into information. Despite this, they retain their legal status as products.

Property is any object that someone has claimed as their own. As absurd as it may seem to an outsider that people may claim ownership of land that was there billions of years before they were, that's the system we use. It makes more sense to demand monetary compensation for the effort you put into making something, of course. There's a big difference between finding edible fruit, actively toiling a field in order to harvest crops, and preparing a sandwich using a loaf of bread you've bought down the market.

At every step of the way, different people contribute different skills, working together as a team to make products. As our society progresses, these skills get increasingly specialised. Generally speaking, this is a good system. From this point of view, it makes sense that if you put effort into arranging words, paints or musical notes into a particular pattern that's either useful or entertaining to other people, you should be rewarded financially by those people for your efforts, in exchange for copies of your arrangements. That way, you can afford to engage in the activity full time.

The problem comes along when someone has the ability to perfectly replicate what you made without having to spend anywhere near as much effort making that replica. The printing press introduced the ability for one person to copy another person's book perfectly. Naturally, someone making such a copy didn't pay the author anything for the privilege because the author wasn't required in order to make the copy, only the original. This became illegal, with the introduction of the Stationers' Register, later replaced by the first official copyright law, the Statute of Anne. There then followed a cat-and-mouse game between new technologies that copied information and extensions to the copyright laws, leading all the way up to the current issue with the Internet.

It is a tricky question as to whether someone who invested time and effort in creating something original should have the right to profit from every copy of it that's made, even if those copies don't cost anything to produce. It's also a tricky question as to whether that original author should be allowed to forbid other people from making new copies of their work at all. Most governments currently seem to favour the rights of a work's original author, opposing the rights of others to do what they like with that work, such as sharing it freely.

I am certainly in favour of encouraging people to create things. However, it seems that attempts to prevent people from copying them, both via the legal system and via technology, are getting increasingly out of hand. Large corporations that make entertainment have an annoying knack of crippling their own officially sanctioned copies of their works, in order to protect those products from you, the consumer. Of course, this tactic only gives the consumer more of an incentive to get the simpler version of the same work that other people are giving away.

There is also a big difference, in my opinion, between claiming to have created what someone else actually made (plagiarism), profiting from someone else's work by copying it without their consent (professional piracy), and freely sharing someone else's work without their consent (amateur piracy). Punishing people for sharing things seems to go against the spirit of a civilisation.

Back to The Digital Revolution, Part Two: E-books | On to The Digital Revolution, Part Four: The Future of Entertainment

Cop"y*right (?), n.

The right of an author or his assignee, under statute, to print and publish his literary or artistic work, exclusively of all other persons. This right may be had in maps, charts, engravings, plays, and musical compositions, as well as in books.

⇒ In the United States a copyright runs for the term of twenty-eight years, with right of renewal for fourteen years on certain conditions. <-- now life plus 50 years, or 75 years for works created for hire. Further extension is (1996) being discussed. -->

International copyright, an author's right in his productions as secured by treaty between nations.


© Webster 1913.

Cop"y*right`, v. t.

To secure a copyright on.


© Webster 1913.

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