Making sense of copyright for writers

Copyright. It’s a subject that seems to especially worry beginning writers. They’re sure editors will steal their ideas, their words and their pictures. They plaster everything with copyright notices and/or register everything they do with the copyright office, which is expensive and unnecessary. Editors are not going to steal your work. They’re too busy and deal with too many queries and manuscripts to even consider it.

The basic rule, at least in the U.S., is that as soon as you put your words into tangible form, whether on paper or on the computer, they are yours. You own the copyright. If someone steals your work, you could sue them. For more protection and more money if you should end up in court, you can register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. For longer works, such as books, you certainly want to do this. But for single essays, articles, stories or poems, you probably don’t need to do that.

But there is some reason for paranoia these days. It’s ridiculously easy to copy things off the Internet, whether they’re words or images. Hit “save as,” give it a name, and there it is on your hard drive. If you just save it for your own education or enjoyment, that’s okay, but if you plan to publish it, in print or online, you’re breaking the law. People do it anyway, many without even realizing it’s wrong, especially in this age of constant sharing on Facebook, Pinterest and other social media sites. Sometimes it’s a compliment; they like your stuff enough to republish it. But they need to ask permission.

A friend recently complained that when we posted photos from our Nye Beach Writers Series events on Facebook, they were not covered unless we added copyright notices. She’s right. Facebook acquires rights to your posts and photos in the same way that a magazine does. You can protect who sees what through your privacy settings, but if you make your posts public, that’s what they are, public.

The same rules apply to blogs, websites, etc. Read the fine print in your privacy settings and put copyright notices on everything. You can type a notice into every post or do what I just did on this WordPress blog. I typed “All content copyright 2014 Sue Fagalde Lick” into the sidebar that always sits at the side of the page. People may still plagiarize, but they have been warned.

How do you know if someone has ripped off your writing or photos? Search for strings of words that are unique to your work. Set up a Google Alert for words and phrases you use often. Also try Copyscape’s free search feature to find plagiarized posts.

Copyright appears to be a simple concept: If you didn’t write those words or take that picture, you can’t use them. But it gets complicated.

Here are some more links to help you sort this stuff out.

“Five Things You Can Do to Protect Your Online Images—by attorney Carolyn E. Wright.

Now go write.

>Do I Need to Copyright Everything I Write?

>People often worry about their story ideas getting stolen. I’m not going to lie. Occasionally it happens, but the truth is that most editors don’t steal ideas, and nobody else is going to write the story the way you would. So don’t stress out over it too much.

Once the piece is written, that’s another story. The law states that you own the rights to your article, poem or whatever as soon as it’s set in concrete form, whether it’s on paper or in a computer file. You don’t have to mail it to yourself or do any other strange machinations to prove it. The writing is yours, even if you never register it with the copyright office.

You’ll see copyright notices in most magazines and newspapers. Those do not cover each individual article. They cover the entire publication in its current form. Copyright for individual articles is a different story.
Registering everything you write is time-consuming and costly, although it does give you more power if you wind up in court over a stolen story. If you want to find out how to register your work, visit The form is easy enough to fill out. If you’re writing a book, you certainly want to make sure it gets copyrighted. You can send short works together and register them as a package. But don’t stress out over it; your work is protected until you sell or give away your rights.

When you’re selling your work to a publication, always, always, always find out what rights they buy and confirm it with the editor. Ideally, you should only sell first rights or one-time rights, so that you can resell the same piece in other publications. You may be presented with a contract that asks for “all rights.” Resist this. Tell them you don’t usually sell all rights and see if they can change that portion of the contract. In some cases, they can. If not, you need to decide: Is this sale worth it for the money, exposure or prestige? Is this story so time-oriented or specific to that publication that you couldn’t sell it anywhere else anyway? Take the money and move on. Or is this something you could sell again and again if you hold onto your rights? You decide.

Good example. I just found out I’m going to get paid $50 more for a piece I sold to a local publisher over a year ago and already reprinted in an online publication. The original publisher is reusing it in another publication. With no extra work on my part, I’m making more money because they did not purchase all rights.

You may also be presented with a “work for hire” contract. That means the company treats your work the same way as work done by an employee. They assume all rights to the story and can do whatever they want with it, reprinting it in other publications, rewriting it at will, etc. Again, in some cases, it may be worth it to get published and paid. In other cases, you’re losing money.

So don’t let fear of being ripped off keep you from submitting your work, but do watch over your rights.
Have you purchased your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers yet?

>May I quote the Internet in my story?

>You’re surfing the Internet and you find THE quote that will make your story. All you have to do is insert it right . . . there.

Wait. There’s no question that the Internet is a gold mine of information, but beware. Some of that gold is fool’s gold, and some of the gold has been already been claimed by someone else.

Let’s talk about the fool’s gold first. Any fool can put anything on the Internet. That does not mean it’s accurate, legal or fair. Even Wikipedia, which sounds very official, is written by individuals who don’t necessarily have any credentials. Before you go quoting the Net, check the source. Who put this information out there? Are they reliable? Can you trace the quote back to where it began? For example, I’m finding articles lately that cite various studies, books and other articles. The real gold is back at that original study or author. It’s even better if I can get to an individual expert who will let me interview him myself and get some new quotes that might be more up-to-date.

As with books, newspapers, magazines, and journals, material on the Internet is considered a secondary source. Try to get to the people who are actually involved in whatever you’re writing about. Use the Internet as a route to those people and as a source for background material.

Now about those claims. What people write on the Internet is just as copyrighted as anything else that gets published. Therefore, the copyright rules apply. You can’t quote more than a few lines without violating their copyright, and you should never take information from anywhere without giving credit to the source. For a refresher on copyright law, check

In addition to the legal rights, there’s the question of privacy. The Net is loaded with forums, discussion groups and blog comments that might fit perfectly into your story. But how would you like it if you thought you were just chatting online and found your words in a newspaper article? You wouldn’t. The fair thing to do is e-mail the person, explain what you’re doing and ask if you can quote them, or, even better, interview them. Most of the time they’ll say yes.

Google and its brethren can make a writer’s life so much easier, but before you go quoting whatever you find online, consider the source and make sure you have permission. After all, what goes online stays online a long time, and the whole world has access to it.

Speaking of the whole world having access, I’ve had a bit of trouble with spam lately. I apologize to those who have had to deal with people trying to sell them unrelated goods or services off this site. I still welcome your comments, but I’ve had to change settings so that I must approve them first in order to protect us all from spam. Don’t let that scare you away. Your words don’t have to be brilliant; they just have to be legitimate comments related to this blog.