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Copyright Basics

We often receive questions about copyright, usually from poets who want to know how to copyright their work.

As a service to poets, we are providing a few basic facts about copyright. These facts are drawn directly from the government web site of the United States and can be easily verified. You can read the fine print about copyright at: http://www.copyright.gov/.

Here are the basics:

Copyright is Secured Automatically upon Creation

The way in which copyright protection is secured is frequently misunderstood. No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright. Copyright is secured automatically when the work is created, and a work is "created" when it is fixed in a copy… for the first time. "Copies" are material objects from which a work can be read or visually perceived either directly or with the aid of a machine or device, such as books, manuscripts, sheet music, film, videotape, or microfilm.

In other words, the instant you write your poem on a page or scribble it on a napkin or save it to your computer's hard drive or speak it into a tape recorder, etc the poem is legally copyright. No payment of any fee is required. No forms need be filled out. The poem need not be "published" to be copyright—it is already copyright the moment you write it!

Notice of Copyright

The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under US law…This requirement was eliminated when the United States adhered to the Berne Convention, effective March 1, 1989. Use of the notice may be important because it informs the public that the work is protected by copyright, identifies the copyright owner, and shows the year of first publication. The use of the copyright notice (© 2004 John Doe)…does not require permission from, or registration with, the Copyright Office.

In other words, there is nothing magical about that "©" symbol and you can feel free to use it if you wish, even though it is not required.

International Copyright

There is no such thing as an "international copyright" that will automatically protect an author's writings throughout the entire world. Protection against unauthorized use in a particular country depends, basically, on the national laws of that country. (It is virtually impossible for an individual author to pursue legally the violation of copyright if it occurs in a foreign country.)

Official Copyright Registration

Copyright registration is a legal formality intended to make a public record…of a particular copyright. However, registration is not a condition of copyright protection. (That's another way of saying that you have copyright protection even if you do not register an official copyright.)

Even though registration is not a requirement for protection, the copyright law provides several inducements or advantages to encourage copyright owners to make registration. For example, before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of US origin. Registration may be made at any time within the life of the copyright.

In other words, if you decide to sue someone for violating your copyright, you will still be able to go to the US Copyright Office and pay to register your copyright of the poem. You can do this at any time, including after someone has violated your copyright.

Registration Procedure

To register a work, send the following three elements in the same envelope or package to
Library of Congress, Copyright Office, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20559-6000:
     1. A properly completed application form.
     2. A nonrefundable filing fee of $30 for each application. (subject to change)
     3. A nonreturnable deposit of the work being registered.

In other words, if someone tells you—or implies—that they are registering your copyright for you, you must assume that out of the goodness of their hearts they have been willing to fill out an application on your behalf and mail $30 to the government. Does this sound reasonable?