I wrote this article for the online poetry journal, beatnik - http://beatnik.poetictricity.com/ . 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 - www.copyright.org.au
UK - www.cla.co.uk
USA - www.loc.gov/copyright/