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.

Research to find out what has already been published

Last week we talked about researching to find facts to use in your queries and in your writing. Research plays another important role for the nonfiction writer: finding out what has been published before. If the market you want to pitch has already covered the subject, there’s no point in asking the editors to do it again. And if lots of publications have been hitting the same subject, you might as well put away your notes and do something else. But if only a few—and not your target market—have written about it, you can use the information in those previous articles to help you write your own and to make sure you take a different slant.

In my Freelancing for Newspapers book, I talk about going to the library and digging into the “morgues” at your local newspaper. You could still do that, but these days, you can do most of your research, including your library research, on the Internet. We talked about some of the sites last week. Google is always good. Do you know about Google Alerts? If you go to and set it up, Google will send you notices of everything that gets published about your subject.

Some other sites to consider in your research:

YouTube–You might think this is just music videos, but it’s not. You can find all kinds of information there. When I wrote about salt-water taffy, I watched demos on YouTube of how it’s made. The site is loaded with interviews, how-tos, training videos, and all sorts of audio-visual information sources. Plug in your subject and try it. You’ll be amazed.–This site will lead you to magazine articles that have been published on our subject. offers extensive listings of articles published in newspapers. if you want to read the whole article, they will ask you to pay a nominal fee, but you might find enough info in the summary.

New York Times archives—You do not have to pay to read articles from the New York Times going back to 1851.—We can’t ignore the wide world of blogs. This site will lead you to blogs on just about any subject.

Journalists Toolbox—I saved the best for last. This fabulous site offered by the Society of Professional Journalists provides an extensive list of places to do research and advice on how to research effectively.

One caution: These sites (and many others) offer so many fascinating things to see and read that you could spend all day clicking from one listing to another instead of writing. Save them for your reward after you get your day’s writing done.

Now go write.