More Copyright Talk

When I posted Let's Talk Copyright, I promised another post about more issues dealing with the complex issue.

What Can't Be Copyrighted

You can't copyright an idea or a concept or theory that has not been expressed in a permanent medium of some sort. You can only copyright the way you express those elements in a fixed medium like a book, photograph, work of art, song, etc. Nor can you copyright a title. That's why you see so many various works with the same title.

If a work has a copyright that has expired, thus making the work now in public domain, then it's up for grabs by anyone and can be used without restriction. If you're looking for something that can be used, do a public domain search.

Fair Use

Even if a work is copyrighted, and the author and/or the licensee are the only ones who have the right to make a copy, not all copying is prohibited. What allows copying by others is covered by a legal concept called Fair Use which I discussed on my other blog.

Briefly, Fair Use allows limited copying for teaching, reporting news, scholarship, literary criticism, or research. Fair Use is used as a defense when someone has been accused of infringing copyright. It is not a law or a right that anyone has. Usually, whether someone has exercised Fair Use or infringed on a creator's copyright is decided by a trial.

Poor Man’s Copyright

If you've never heard this term, it's probably because no one in today's world mentions it any more, and that's probably because everyone realizes it's no kind of legal protection.

Back when I first began writing, I remember hearing a published author speak who told how her engineer husband used Poor Man's Copyright to protect his work. She said that might be something an author could do if worried someone would steal their work before it was published.

The way PMC worked was that you put your work in an envelope and mailed it to yourself. When you received it in the mail, complete with a postmark on the envelope, you shelved it, unopened. The thinking was you could produce the work, sealed in the envelope, and the postmark would attest to the fact that you had created it on a date prior to someone who had stolen it and published it on a later date. Pretty lame, huh? Back a couple of decades ago, a lot of unpublished, aspiring writers did this. For some reasons, those who aren't published are very fearful of having their work stolen.

Work For Hire

Many writers sign contracts wherein they do not retain copyright in their names. The copyright holder is whoever hired them to write the work. This is called Work For Hire. These are the contracts you should not sign unless:

1. You get paid a good chunk of change.
2. You don't care whether your name is associated with the work or not because you don't see your career growing in that direction.
3. You need the money so much that you can't afford to turn the deal down.

Takeaway Truth

Copyright ownership is a very big issue for a writer. Make sure you have a solid grasp of copyright basics, and always understand contract clauses.


  1. I used to mail myself 50 blank pages every few months in an unsealed envelope. I figured that if I needed to, I could replace the blank pages with something I'd written and THEN seal the envelope. In an era before xerox machines, it was a lot less hassle than producing carbon copies of everything, and sending stuff out all the time.

    The problem with poor man's copyright is that nobody wants to steal your work. If you market it right, you'll beat anyone else to market. If you don't market it right, it's worthless.

    And most of the stuff that was under "poor man's copyright" was worthless. It couldn't be marketed right, because nobody would want to read it.

    Which is the problem of regular copyright. Writers need to worry about producing something worth stealing rather than about people stealing it.

  2. *LOL* Unfortunately, what you say is too true.