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Copyright | Factsheets


Copyright in your writing

WritersServices Factsheet 16 by Michael Legat

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Anything you write is your copyright as soon as you have put it in writing or on disc or recorded it in some other way, provided, of course that it is your own work rather than something which you have copied. However, if the material is written as part of your employment, as is the case with journalists employed by a newspaper or magazine, the copyright belongs to the employer.

In the UK, the EU and many other parts of the world copyright lasts for 70 years after the author’s death, or 70 years from publication if the work is published posthumously.

You should never surrender or sell your copyright. There are very few exceptions to this rule, but it is common practice for publishers to buy the copyright in compilations, such as encyclopedias and certain reference books, although in that case the publisher should agree to pay additional sums each time the book is reprinted or the material is used in some other form.

It is not legally necessary to put a copyright notice on your work, but it does no harm and may scare off anyone who thinks of infringing your copyright. The usual form is: ‘Copyright your name, and the year when the work was published or completed if it has not been published.’

If your work is published, the publishers will be as anxious as you to ensure that the book will not be plagiarised and will include a copyright notice in their editions of the work.

If your work is published in a magazine or newspaper, it is unlikely that a copyright notice will appear at the foot of your story or feature. However, you will still own the copyright. Some magazines and newspapers try to snaffle the copyright in contributors’ work. Don’t let them do so.

There is no copyright in ideas. Unless you have worked out your idea in great detail and it is genuinely original, it will be difficult to prove that it has been stolen, especially since it is quite likely that more than one among hundreds of thousands of writers will have had the same idea. In any case, publishers are not usually in the business of pinching ideas.

There is no copyright in titles, but if you use the title of a well-known book you could be sued for ‘passing off’ (trying to persuade members of the public to buy your book in the belief that they are choosing the well-known book). For the same reason you may also have to choose a pseudonym if your own name is exactly the same as that of a best-selling author.

Any letters written to you become your property on receipt, but the copyright belongs to those who wrote them.

The copyright in a photograph belongs to the photographer, even if you commissioned it to be taken. This factsheet links to An Author’s Guide to Publishing



© Michael Legat 2001