Copyright Basics For Creators


Creation is a beautiful and personal thing. For the creator, the work he brings into the world can be a source of pride and joy, filling him with a sense of accomplishment, showing his worth, at last, to the world, or at least to some small part of it; sometimes even (believe it or not) producing revenue! But, sadly, as in the case of all activities which bear fruit in this competitive and grasping world of ours, where there is value, there is also theft. Where there is a treasure, there is also robbery.

In the creative fields, robbery takes place for a wide variety of reasons. A sterile, burnt-out, or lazy writer may lift something straight out of anotherís pages, to help overcome his own writerís block, or to enrich his own lame material. A poet may be so mesmerized by someone elseís lines that he cannot help but insert them into his own poem. A musician may like a tune or lyrics he hears someone else performing at a club so much, that he decides to steal the song, or at least key parts of it, and pass it off as his own. In the desperate world of nightclub comedy - Darwin Central - the "use" of other peopleís jokes is commonplace. While the theft of songs, and TV and movie scripts sent in by aspiring amateurs to entertainment companies, is also a well-known phenomenon.

For the true author of an artistic work, the theft of what he has created out of the wounds and depths of his heart and soul, can be absolutely devastating. It can cut him off from the respect, the opportunity, the sense of belonging and acceptance, and, at times, the economic revenue that he deserves. In a worst case scenario, it could blow away his big break; while even at its least damaging, it could leave him with a sense of being violated and diminished.

Of course, this is what copyright, and copyright law, is all about.

As soon as an artist creates a work - whether that work is a song, a poem, a novel, a screenplay, an essay, a painting, or a sculpture - he is legally the owner of what he has created, and no one else has the right to use or reproduce what he has created without his permission. (An exception would be if his creation was done as a "work for hire", meaning that he did the work under contract for an employer, with the understanding that the employer would own the rights to what he had created. This case would apply to a staff writer for a newspaper or magazine, to most artists commissioned to produce works by publishing companies and advertising firms, to many writers of TV and movie scripts, etc.)

Although a creator is generally the legal owner of what he has created, merely by creating it, copyrighting is often an advisable procedure, because it provides official documentation which concretely links specific material with a specific author, and locates the act of creation at a specific point in time. In the case of artistic theft, an official copyright provides the genuine author with a strong legal basis for asserting his claim of authorship, better enabling him to defend his rights as the creator. These rights could include his right to use and distribute the material as he saw fit (there are some cases where efforts have been made to block unprotected authors from using their own material); as well as to receive all economic rewards due to him as the workís true creator, including royalty payments.

Copyrighting oneís work is a relatively simple procedure. The starting point - once you have created something! - is the US Copyright Office, information below:

Library of Congress

Copyright Office

Publications Section, LM-455

101 Independence Avenue, SE

Washington, DC 20559-6000

You can write here to request forms. Or call the automated #: (202) 707-9100, to place an order for forms; or the live line at (202) 707-3000 (between 8:30 AM and 5 PM, M-F), to speak to a specialist about your concerns. Or go on-line to: (If you have "Adobe Acrobat Reader", you can download the forms. Lots of information is also available)

The forms most commonly used to initiate the copyright process are:

Form PA: For unpublished and published works of the performing arts, including songs, musical compositions, plays, choreography, motion pictures, and audiovisual works. These are works meant to be performed in front of an audience, either directly or indirectly (by means of "devices" such as CDs, films, etc.)

Form TX: For unpublished and published "nondramatic literary works", including fiction and nonfiction, short stories, poems, essays, articles, and (believe it or not) computer programs!

Form VA: For published and unpublished visual art works, including "pictorial, graphic, and sculptural" works.

Other forms are also available. Check with the copyright office.

In order to copyright oneís work, one must (1) Fill out and submit the proper form, following all directions which accompany that form. (2) Send one (in cases more than one) "deposit" - or sample - of the work to be copyrighted (flat copies of a manuscript, leadsheets or tapes with flat copies of accompanying lyrics for songs, copies of a film, etc.) (3) Send a copyright fee, via check or money order, payable to the "Register of Copyrights." The fee is subject to change, and should be verified before sending oneís completed copyright package to:

Library of Congress

Copyright Office

101 Independence Avenue, SE

Washington, DC 20559-6000

As of August 2002, the fee was $30 US.

Naturally, to save money, it is possible to copyright a collection of short stories, or poems, or songs, under one fee (each poem contained, in such a collection, would be considered copyrighted. Otherwise, only a millionaire - or a very occasional writer - could afford to copyright all of his poems. And, as most of us know, millionaire-poets are about as common as glass baseballs.)

As of August 2002, due to backlogs and security concerns regarding US postal service delivery in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, the copyright office has advised all applicants to send in their completed copyright packages via private carriers, such as the UPS or Fed Ex (Air or Ground). Packages sent via the post office were experiencing long delays in being processed. Presumably, this is a temporary situation, but I advise you of it. If you have any doubts, please look for updates on the copyright office web site, or call.

Your legal copyright protection (from the copyright office) officially kicks in as of the day your copyright package is received by that office. (Your carrier should be able to provide documentation as to when your package was received by the copyright office, and who signed for it.) It will actually take several months, after that, before you receive your official certificate of copyright registration for the submitted work.

Protection for works copyrighted, as of this time, is for the life of the author, plus 70 years (so heirs can get into the act). After that time, the work reverts to the "public domain", meaning that anybody can jump in and use it, as raw material for his own work. Just like you could put Don Quixote or Captain Nemo in your novel, or print and sell copies of Shakespeareís plays. Seeing how burned out a lot of entertainment industry people seem these days, the public domain has become a real gold mine for "artistic production." Not that itís all bad. Take the case of the beautiful unowned repertoire of English, Irish, Scottish, and American folk songs (and also Latin American folk music) whose haunting melodies provided the raw material for many fine songs in the 1960s. Some interesting new things have also been done with Sherlock Holmes in the last decades.

Many people wonder if there are limits to what can be copyrighted, and there most certainly are. Short phrases, titles, names, and slogans are not eligible for copyright protection, though, in cases (youíll have to check), the US Patent and Trademark Office, which is something distinct from the Copyright Office, may be able to provide protection:

General Information Service Division

US Patent and Trademark Office

Crystal Plaza 3, Room 2CO2

Washington, DC 20231

Telephone #: 1-800-786-9199

If you want to name a band "Generation X Voodoo Death Dolls", or entitle your book "Mr. Smileyís Run-in with the Law", or coin the slogan, "It takes two to tango, but only one to belly dance", the Copyright Office is not the one to do the job for you.

Copyright protection also fails to cover "ideas, concepts, systems, and methods" of doing things. If you are a science fiction writer, for example, and come up with the idea of a planet that has a brain, you canít put a fence up around that idea and claim it as your private property. Your specific story canít be copied; but your idea can.

Another question people frequently ask about copyright protection is does this protection extend outside the US? The answer is that works registered with the US Copyright Office are protected in all nations which have signed an international copyright agreement, along with the US. In nations which are not members of this agreement, or make no genuine effort to enforce it, piracy is, unfortunately, something which exists and cannot be stopped. In the same way that the US cannot prevent bootleg Barney dolls from being churned out in such places, so it cannot prevent a melody from being stolen, or the essence of a novel from being ripped off, in lands such as these. Political and economic pressure is slowly being applied, however, in an effort to widen compliance with our copyright laws, and our concepts of intellectual and artistic property. (Of course, we see that bootlegging - a clear violation of copyright laws which takes income away from creators - is also very much a part of our own urban street scene, and now, the Internet. Law enforcement simply lacks the resources to move in and shut down this "black market" completely. But as this article is mainly oriented towards creators who are still in the process of struggling to get recognition, and to establish some sort of minimal protection for what may well prove to be future assets, the bootleg issue is not our major concern here. Weíll save that issue for once weíve "made it"!)

One interesting point to make about copyrighting oneís creative material with the US Copyright Office, is that one does not have to be a US citizen to do so. Anyone, from anywhere throughout the world, may copyright his material, here, which will then be protected throughout the US and all nations which adhere to the relevant copyright agreements.

Although securing an official copyright is definitely the best way to protect oneís creative work from theft, I have heard that some economically strapped creators have resorted to the technique of sending their material to themselves via registered mail. (I know that this was recommended to Bob Dylan when he first arrived in New York.) If the envelope is well-sealed, and postmarks are placed across the seal, this may create a package capable of documenting oneís authorship, and providing an informal proof of the date of authorship. Some postal clerks will gladly hand the envelope back to you through the window after the postmarks are stamped on and the postage paid. That saves the mail carrier a little extra work, and decreases the possibility that your envelope will get ripped or in other ways compromised during delivery. Other postal clerks will insist that the package must go through the regular delivery system. Most of the time, it will arrive in usable shape. Of course, once you have the package, you ought to put it in a safe, quiet place - and hold onto it like money or jewels - just in case. (And for Godís sakes, whatever you do, donít "break the seal", that is reserved for a future hypothetical date in court!)

Again, this technique is definitely inferior to that of securing an official copyright. (Only official copyright registration allows you to recoup court expenses if the case goes to litigation.)

Note:  Now, with the advent of the Internet and e-mail, it is possible to paste a creative work, such as a short story, poem, or song lyrics, into an e-mail, and send it to yourself.  If the e-mail you then receive is tagged with a date and time from your Internet Service Provider's server, and if the e-mail address used to send and receive the message is yours, then that could act as an informal proof of the work's date of creation, and strongly suggest that you were the creator.  However, I am not an expert in the world of computers and the Internet, and not knowing the potential for manipulation of this system, have no idea if it would constitute convincing evidence of your authorship.  I imagine it would be better than nothing, in a pinch, but, once again, much inferior to formal copyright registration.

Another non-official-copyright aid in the protection of oneís work includes the preservation of any rough drafts of a given work you may have created, which is able to give some insight as to how the work was generated and evolved into its final form. (Of course, this may not be applicable to all art forms, and cases.) Rough draft material helps to argue against the possibility that you, yourself, are making a false claim of authorship in order to steal from someone else, since it provides evidence that you did not just produce a finished work (as thieves, presumably, would), but actually built the work up from scratch, struggling and working with it all the way.

Witnesses who saw your creation before it was ripped off and claimed by someone else would also be helpful, though, as in all such cases, the reliability of the witnesses could be called into question (a bunch of "hanging" buddies, chilling partners, or "cuates" might not be convincing).

Once again, for the maximum level of protection, official copyright registration is to be preferred.

Hopefully, once you have copyrighted your work, you wonít need to do anything else. However, one day, if you suddenly discover that someone else is passing off your poem as his poem, or if you hear your song on the radio (and you donít know anything about it), youíll have the documentation you need to act. Depending on the circumstances, you may take different forms of action, ranging from contacting a copyright violator (please, no criminal threats!), to contacting a web serverís complaints division, to the classic copyright infringement response, which is to: consult an attorney, and if so advised, file a civil lawsuit in a federal district court with the aim of recapturing full rights to your creative material, and recovering any economic losses which may have resulted from the theft.

Of course, the point of this article is NOT to suggest that anyone withdraw into a defensive shell, or succumb to crippling paranoia when it comes to the deployment of their work. Creation is meant to be exposed and shared, and as in anything else in life, risks have to be taken in order to live and to grow. However, "creation theft" is a sad reality in this world of ours, where ethical standards are not always as high as we would wish to see them, and where art is often the prey of just one other form of vulture, who wants the glory or money that comes from the talent he lacks, or the moment he didnít have. Copyright protection is one way for the creator to gain peace of mind in the midst of such a reality; and, ultimately, a way of increasing his confidence, aiding him in his quest to share his creative life with the world.


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