Self-Publishing Copyright:
What Authors Need to Know

In the world of self-publishing copyright, understanding how to protect your work is equally as important as creating it. 

Let's face it – the thought of someone stealing your hard-earned work can be frightening - and overwhelming.

But with a firm grasp of copyright laws, you can approach self-publishing with confidence.

Anxious male with his book on the table

At this stage, you're filled with both excitement and anxiety. From the thrill of seeing your words come to life to the fear of copyright infringement - and it requires a bit of navigation of intellectual property laws.

Your book is your intellectual property and the protection of it is top of mind, and it's crucial to understand what we authors need to know about self-publishing copyright laws. 

This article is not legal advice, rather it's about "fair use" and the self-publishing rights of the copyright holder of a self-published book, or any literary work.

What Exactly Does "Self-Publishing Copyright" Mean?

Self-publishing copyright and the general copyright law in general, grant you, the author, the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, or license your work. 

When deciding to self-publish, you retain these rights as copyright owner, giving you control over how your work is used and distributed.

Copyright Registration: Required or Not?

Before publishing your book, if you want a self-publishing copyright, it's a good idea to register your book if you feel you need the protection. 

Having said that, registration isn't required to have self-publishing copyright protection but it does provide evidence of copyright ownership.

Doing so enables you to take legal action against copyright infringement and it also adds an extra layer of deterrence against potential plagiarists.

What About Artistic Works?

Artistic sculpture on woodArtistic sculpture on wood, created with Midjourney

If you're wondering about artistic works, like paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs when getting your self-publishing copyright, they are treated very similarly to books and other writings under copyright law.

Copyright for Artistic Works goes into detail about art.

Does a Book Copyright Also Protect
Your Book's Cover?

The copyright protection for a book generally covers both the text content inside as well as the cover design on the outside.

Here are some key points about self-publishing copyright for cover art:

  • The artistic cover design constitutes a separate creative work that is eligible for copyright protection on its own, apart from the text content.
  • The copyright owner of the overall bookwork typically holds the rights to the cover design as well. This is usually the publisher or author.
  • Any artistic elements of the book cover, such as illustrations, photos, graphic designs, ornamentation, etc. are protected from unauthorized reproduction and derivative uses.
  • The cover design as a whole is also protected, even without individual distinct elements. The overall arrangement and composition comprise a creative work.
  • Simply changing the title or text on a copied cover design still constitutes infringement if the art itself is substantially similar.
  • Quotes or short text extracts on the cover may qualify under fair use, but reproducing lengthy passages would require permission.
  • Reproducing a book cover design for commercial use would require licensing from the copyright holder, even if the interior text is different.

What is a Copyright Notice?

Copyright symbol with words

A copyright notice is the "Copyright © Author name" followed by the "all rights reserved" part.

Your copyright page should include the copyright symbol ©, the year of your book's publication, the author's name, and a rights statement. This applies to both print books and eBooks. 

See my example, below of a basic format of a copyright notice with the 'rights statement':

Copyright © 2023 Susan Gast.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under U.S. copyright laws and treaties worldwide. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the author. Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited.

Library of Congress Control Number

This Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) is used as a unique identifier to catalog and organize published works in their collection.

This LCCN is also added to your copyright page, beneath the copyright symbol and date. This is also where I add my ISBN number when self-publishing on Amazon KDP.

The ISBN can be placed above or below the copyright date and rights statement. It doesn't matter (as Amazon has never indicated to me that I've put it in the wrong place, after 60 published books - and counting!

Registering your Self-Publishing Copyright

Registering your self-publishing copyright is pretty straightforward. In the U.S., you can apply online through the U.S. Copyright Office's Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) system. (Wow, now that's an ecosystem of human living organisms - joke!)

All you need to do is fill out a form, pay a fee, and submit a copy of your work. Remember, your submission must include your "self-publishing copyright page" (also known as the title page) that's in your book.

More deets on how to submit and pay are coming up shortly.

Copyright Costs in the United States

The cost for copyright registration in the United States depends on the method you use:

  • Online registration - $55 for a basic claim. This is the most common method.
  • Paper application - $85 for a basic claim. This involves mailing in a paper application form.
  • Single application for a group of works - You can register multiple works with one application for one fee. The basic fee is $55 but there is an additional fee of $25 per group of up to 10 works.

There are also some additional costs:

  • If you want expedited processing, there is an extra fee of $800 per application. This gets registration done within 5 business days.
  • If the work requires adding extra pages or forms, there are small surcharges per extra page/form.
  • Using a paper application always costs $10 more than online.

For a basic one-work copyright registration, it costs $55 online or $85 by paper application. Group registrations cost more but can be more cost-effective.The average time for receiving your copyright is four months.

How to Contact eCO:

Here are the deets for the U.S. Copyright Office's Electronic Copyright Office (eCO):

The eCO is a service provided by the U.S. Copyright Office which is located at: U.S. Copyright Office 101 Independence Ave. S.E. Washington, D.C. 20559-6000

So if you wanted to submit a copyright registration by mail rather than online, you would send the paper application to the Copyright Office at the Washington D.C. address above.

In essence: Online registration is done through the eCO website, while paper applications are mailed to the Copyright Office's physical address in Washington D.C.

Copyright Infringement: What to Do

evil man as a copyright infringerCreated with Midjourney

But what about those who might infringe on your self-publishing copyright?

Here's where vigilance comes into play. 

Once your book has been published, use a copyright checker to see if your work has been used elsewhere without your permission. 

These tools listed below scan the internet for content identical to yours and can help you detect unauthorized use.

Recommended Copyright Checkers:

  • Copyleaks - Offers a free plagiarism checker and paid subscription plans for more in-depth copyright scans. Integrates with major self-publishing platforms.
  • DupliChecker - Free plagiarism detection with premium paid plans. Allows uploading documents to scan against online sources.
  • PlagScan - Paid subscription service with different pricing tiers based on usage. Checks against a wide range of web sources.
  • Turnitin - Known primarily as a plagiarism checker for academics, but offers services for publishers too.
  • iThenticate - Comprehensive copyright checker used by many academic institutions and publishers.
  • Copyscape - One of the original plagiarism checkers, with both free and paid premium options.
  • Grammarly - Well-known free grammar checker that also includes plagiarism detection in its premium version.
  • ProWritingAid - Paid subscription tool that includes plagiarism checking along with other writing analysis features.

Legal Protection

If you discover your copyright has been infringed upon, as the last thing we want as indie authors is to have our work stolen, do the following:

  • Send a cease and desist letter - This is a formal notice informing the infringing party that they do not have permission to use your copyrighted material and must immediately stop the unauthorized use. The letter should identify the infringing content and request removal or other remedies.
  • File a takedown notice - If the infringement is on a website, social media, or other online platform, you can file a DMCA takedown notice. (DMCA is Digital Millennium Copyright Act). This requires the provider to remove or disable access to the infringing content.
  • Speak to an attorney - An intellectual property attorney can help draft an effective letter or takedown notice and determine if further legal action is recommended.
  • Gather evidence - Document the infringement with screenshots, photos, links, and other proofs that clearly show unauthorized use of your work.
  • Send the letter via certified mail - Sending it by registered post with delivery confirmation helps prove they received your notice.
  • Be clear and firm, but polite - Avoid hostile language and stick to factual statements about the situation and the remedies you seek.
  • Provide a reasonable timeframe - Give them 15-30 days to comply before escalating further action.
  • Follow up - If they don't respond or comply, you may need to take legal action like filing a copyright lawsuit.

The key is to properly notify them in writing and keep records. If that fails, consulting a lawyer to enforce your rights may be the next step.

Berne Convention Rules

The Berne Convention is an international agreement that sets standard rules for copyright protection between signatory countries. BTW, Berne is also spelled Bern.

Here are some key facts about the Berne Convention:

  • It was first adopted in 1886 in Berne, Switzerland, and has undergone several revisions over the years. It is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
  • The Berne Convention requires its signatories to recognize copyright protections for works created by authors from other signatory countries in the same way it protects the copyright of its own nationals. This is known as national treatment.
  • Copyright under Berne lasts for at least the life of the author plus 50 years*, although member countries may provide longer terms if they wish. (*See next section).
  • Under Berne, copyright arises automatically upon creation of a work - registration or notice is not required. Copyright applies to every production in the literary, scientific, and artistic domain, including books, music, paintings, sculptures, films, computer programs, databases, advertisements, maps, and technical drawings.
  • The Convention prohibits formalities that would allow a country to remove copyright protections from a work if registration procedures or other formalities were not met.
  • Berne provides moral rights protections for authors separate from economic rights. This includes the right to claim authorship and object to modifications or distortions of the work that could harm the creator's reputation.
  • There are currently 178 parties to the Berne Convention, making it the most widely adopted copyright treaty. Notable members include the U.S., Japan, Russia, the EU, and most other major countries. It provides a key framework for international copyright law.

Minimum Copyright Term: It Used to be Life
of Author Plus 50 Years (Now it's 70)

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works is an international set of laws that protects copyrighted works from infringement across the member countries. The convention was created in Berne, Switzerland in 1886 with 10 European member countries.

The Berne Convention originally set the minimum copyright term as the life of the author + 50 years. However, that has been extended in recent years. 

  • In the 1993 Brussels Act of the Berne Convention, the required minimum term was increased to life + 70 years. This 70-year post-mortem term has become the standard in most countries.
  • In the United States, works created on or after January 1, 1978, have a copyright term lasting the life of the author + 70 years.
  • In the European Union, the term is life + 70 years for most works. This standard was put in place with the 1993 Directive on Harmonizing Term of Protection.
  • Other major economies like Canada, Australia, and Japan also provide copyright protection for life + 70 years.
  • The rationale for extending the term by 20 years beyond the original Berne Convention standard was to account for longer life expectancy and to provide financial protection for two generations of an author's heirs.
  • However, there is debate as to whether the extended term genuinely benefits creators vs. overly restricting public access and use of older works. But for now, life + 70 years remains the international standard.

Public Domain Works

Mozart and Beethoven Midjourney created

A public domain work refers to creative materials that are not protected by copyright and are freely available for anyone to use. Here are some key things to know about public domain works:

  • Works enter the public domain when their copyright term expires. This depends on when the work was created and the applicable copyright length. In the US, works published prior to 1927 (as of 2023) are in the public domain.
  • Works can also enter the public domain if the copyright holder deliberately releases it by waiving their rights. This is less common.
  • Works created by the US federal government are not copyrightable under US law and are automatically in the public domain. The same applies to many government documents and works in other countries.
  • Just because a work is in the public domain does not mean it can never become copyrighted again. An old public domain work can be 'revived' if it is modified or adapted in a new, original way that creates a new copyrightable work.
  • Examples of public domain works include Shakespeare's plays, Beethoven's 5th Symphony, ancient Greek myths, and US government reports. Disney adapted old fairy tales in the public domain to create films like Snow White.
  • Anyone can freely use, modify, reproduce, sell, or redistribute a public domain work without needing permission. Copyright protections no longer apply.

So in summary, public domain refers to works without copyright protection that are freely usable by the public. But they can gain new copyright if adapted into a substantially new work. Public domain status is country-specific and depends on copyright term limits.

What are Derivative Works?

A derivative work refers to a new creative work that is based on or derived from an existing work that is still under copyright protection. Here are some key things to know about derivative works:

  • They are separate works that adapt, transform, or recast the original copyrighted work. The new work must include original and creative elements, and not just copy the original.
  • Common types of derivative works include translations, film adaptations of novels, remixes and sampled music, art reproductions, sequels, prequels, fan fiction, and more.
  • The copyright protections extend both to the original work and the subsequent new derivative work - both cannot be reproduced or adapted without permission.
  • To legally create a derivative work, the creator typically must obtain a license or assignment of rights from the copyright holder of the original work, otherwise, it constitutes copyright infringement.
  • Examples of derivative works would be the novel Scarlett based on Gone with the Wind, Andy Warhol's silkscreen prints of Campbell soup cans, or a techno remix of a pop song.
  • There are exceptions allowing certain derivatives under the Fair Use doctrine, such as parody works that comment on the original.
  • Rights to prepare derivative works are one of the exclusive rights granted to copyright holders under US copyright law.

So in essence, a derivative work is a new creative work that builds upon and incorporates elements of a preexisting work still under copyright. The right to prepare derivatives is an important part of copyright protection.

Advantages of Self-Publishing

If you're still on the fence about "self-publishing" or using a "traditional publisher," the answer isn't as straightforward as you might hope since it depends on your personal goals and circumstances. 

If you're looking for a wider audience then choose a traditional publisher, that is, if they'll accept your project! 

If you want to keep a handle on costs, try the self-publishing way.

Although self-publishing gives you full creative control and ownership over your work, it requires you to handle all the aspects of publishing on your own, too.

Traditional publishing provides assistance with editing, distribution, and marketing, sure, but it requires giving up some rights and profits. 

Whether you choose the traditional route versus the self-publishing route, your understanding of and applying the copyright notice to your work is the best way of protecting your intellectual property rights. 

Did you know that copyright law only protects expressed ideas, not concepts?

detailed plot with specific characters and events is protected, but a basic storyline is not, keep that in mind.

When self-publishing, copyright is more than just a legal safeguard, it's a testament to your commitment to your work!

What is Poor Man's Copyright?

a poor elderly man reading a book

Poor Man's Copyright refers to a makeshift way for creators to establish proof of copyright ownership when formal registration is difficult or costly. Here is an overview:

  • It involves mailing a physical copy of your unpublished work to yourself in a sealed envelope. The sealed package provides verifiable evidence of possession on the postmark date.
  • When received, the sealed package is not to be opened but stored in a safe place. It serves as poor man's proof of owning the copyright on the postage date.
  • If any copyright disputes arise, the sealed package can be presented in court as basic evidence you created the work by that date. The sealed contents theoretically would confirm it.
  • It provides a bare minimum level of potential proof if you cannot afford official registration or need to quickly establish ownership evidence.
  • However, it has weak legal standing and effectiveness. It does not provide actual protection or enforcement the way formal registration does. Most experts do not recommend it as a reliable approach.
  • The prevalence of digital means of securely date-stamping and storing works has further diminished this Poor Man's technique in the modern era.
  • Overall, Poor Man's Copyright tends to provide a false sense of security. Real protection comes from proper registration and use of copyright notice on published works. This technique should be seen as an obsolete last-resort option only and actually is no longer used, see below.

Sadly, the use of Poor Man's Copyright is no longer considered to be a legal way to protect your work, but why? It sounds good on the surface, right?

According to the courts, they say that the sealed contents can't be verified. Also, experts in the field say doing the Poor Man's Copyright may provide a false sense of security.

After the 1976 Copyright Act made registration optional, there's really no need to have the Poor Man's Copyright nowadays.

It's best to do it the proper way by registering your book with the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, DC.

Self-Published Authors:
Copyright is Like Having "Insurance"

For self-published authors, paying for a registered copyright ensures your work is protected against unauthorized use, safeguarding your creative efforts. 

Now you can confidently publish your work to the world, knowing you're "covered," just like having insurance.

If you are a newbie or an experienced author exploring new avenues, remember, understanding self-publishing copyright is not just about legal protection. 

It's about respecting the value of your work, asserting your rights, and taking control of your creative journey. 

Protect what's rightfully yours. Thanks for stopping by this self-publishing copyright for authors.

Blue Leaf gif

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Susan Gast created this website to showcase her puzzle books and other fiction and non-fiction books she's written and produced since 2012. Read Susan's story here.

Since 1980, Susan's involvement in publishing - in one form or another - led her to create "reviews" of products related to the publishing industry. She realized it was time to explain how she created all those books and got them to market.

Since 2010, Susan has also owned and operated Easy Food Dehydrating where she is featured on the Mother Earth News blog, and on Solo Build It (SBI). Read her first SBI interview and her second SBI interview.

The sites mentioned are hosted by the amazing team at Solo Build It!

Do you want to send Susan a quick message? Visit her contact page here.

She'd love to hear from you!

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