Understanding Copyright and Protecting Your Work



First it was Napster, “stealing” music, and these days it is The Piratebay allowing people to steal virtually anything that is distributed by way of electronic data. From books to videos to computer programs. Nothing, it seems is safe! So how do you protect your book from being copied and distributed illegally?

The most important tool available to authors in this technological age, was introduced back in 1662 by Charles II of England. Copyright might be nearly 400 years old, but it is still the best way to protect your work. Read on to see how this can be possible!

What is Copyright?

Now, please allow us to be a bit technical. This is necessary so that you will understand clearly what copyright is and how it works for you. OK, Deep breath, here we go!

Copyright is:

  • A Legal Concept
  • Concerning Intellectual Property
  • Protected by most government
  • Granting the creator of an original work exclusive distribution rights
  • For a limited time (Usually up to certain number of years after the author’s death or after the publication.)
  • To allow the creator to earn an income from their work.

This means then that copyright is a way of protecting the work of an author, like you, so that someone else cannot legally make money from your work. If some unscrupulous profiteer did however try to cheat you, then you could take him to court and sue him. And if your lawyer is as clever as the plot of your book, you will win!

How does it work?

It is important for you to know how copyright works. What does copyright do, and what doesn’t do?

Copyright generally gives the author certain exclusive rights. This means that you are the Master and Commander of the fate of your work.

These allow the author to:

  • Reproduce or copy the work and to sell these copies. This includes electronic versions, like e-books.
  • Receive credit if the work is used by someone else.
  • Create new works from the original. Typically this would be using characters from one book in another or in a series. Think Harry Potter or Mickey Mouse.
  • Turn the work into a video or audio production.

These rights mean that you are the boss. You wrote the book and now you have the right to decide how to use it. You may legally sell, or cede, some of your rights to someone else. This could be an individual or a company. For your sake I hope that it is someone with deep pockets!

Copyright has different components, and each of them can be licensed or sold separately. So, you might sell the right to publish a print book to a publishing house, keep the right to publish the e-book for yourself, and sell the right of making a movie to a movie production company. Or you might sell all of them to a single entity.

Threshold of Originality

To qualify for protection under copyright acts of most countries, a work must cross the so-called Threshold of Originality. Copyright focuses more on whether a work is original than whether it is unique. This means that even if a fictional version of the life of Queen Anne, Nelson Mandela or J.F.K, has already been published, you can also write one, as long it is original.

Obtaining Copyright

Most countries adhere to the Berne Convention when it comes to copyright. In these countries copyright is assigned automatically and not registration is necessary for claiming protection under copyright laws (unlike patent or trademarks). Registration can be useful if you do need to fight a case in the court, but it isn’t essential. In US, statutory damages and attorney’s fees are only awarded, if the copyright was registered.

Protecting Copyright

Protection under copyright doesn’t mean that government (or the government agency responsible for copyright registrations) is looking out for every possible violation. You must watch out for anyone infringing on your rights and work to get protection under applicable law. You might need to send notice to a violator, or take him to the court if necessary.

International Protection

There are various international treaties and agreements that protect copyright. The oldest of these is the Berne Convention that date back to the 1880’s. More than a 160 countries have submitted themselves to this publishing convention which protects authors.

The most important component of Berne Convention is “National Treatment” principle. This means that a country which is signatory of the convention will provide protection to even to work originating in another country according to its own laws. For example under Indian copyright law a work is protected for sixty years after author’s death. As a signatory of Berne’s Convention India will offer the same protection to work originating in USA or other signatory countries as well. An author outside India need not apply for a registration in India to claim this protection.

The other components of Berne Convention cover the:

  • Minimum Standards to qualify for protection
  • Automatic protection principle (no registration required)
  • Duration of copyright protection (minimum of Life+50 years)
  • Types of works that are protected

If your country has not yet signed the Berne Convention, it is important that you find out how copyright works in your country.

The First-sale doctrine

Copyright prevents the making of copies of a protected work. Does this mean that once a book is bought, it may not legally be resold? No, not at all. If you own a legally obtained copy of a book, you may resell your book. This is why we have second-hand book stores.

However, at this point the First-sale doctrine does not apply to e-books, or software in general. You cannot resale an e-book you have purchased, unless the terms and conditions specifically allow it (and they don’t in most cases, unless you enter into a distribution agreement with the publisher!).

Public Domain

When the copyright period of a book eventually runs out, it passes into to Public Domain. Once this happens, anyone can legally publish the book, write an adaptation or translation for it, or make a movie based on it. This should not really worry you, because at this point, you will have been dead for 70 years!

One common misconception about public domain is that any work available publicly (for example, on Internet) is in public domain. That is not the case. Even if a work is made available publicly, one cannot indiscriminately copy it. It is still protected by the copyright and any use of it is governed by the applicable laws. A work is in public domain only if its copyright has expired, or the copyright holder has expressly released it in public domain.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is an international non-profit organization. Their aim is to allow a way by which a newly created work can be shared in a legal way. The organization provides various free copyright license options in which the rights holder can indicate how a work may be used.

Public Domain and Creative Common licenses are interesting topics about which we would talk in a separate post.


Copyright is an important and complex issue. It is logical that the works of an author, photographer or musician should be protected. You, as an author, should have a clear understanding of how to protect your work.

Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is often presented as another good way of protecting your work. DRM is a technical measure, and unfortunately not a fool-proof one.

Copyright on the other hand, being a legal concept, cannot be removed by an illegally downloaded piece of software. It might need you to take people to courts, but it provides the ultimate protection.

Remember, this post was not written to answer all your answers about copyright. The idea is more to help you to figure out which questions to ask next.

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