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A Writer’s Guide to Copyright, Part 1

2011 June 29
by Hazel

[Editors’ note: This is the first in a two-part post on copyright protection. We here at Hazel & Wren have not studied law, nor have any experience in copyright protection claims or suits. The following is simply an overview of what we’ve learned in our research, and is meant only to provide a starting point for your own. For in-depth information or specific guidance, it is best to get help from an actual lawyer or other professional well-versed in all things copyright.]

Ever wondered exactly what that little circle-enclosed “c” entails? We’ve been doing some digging into copyright protection lately, and thought we’d share what we’ve learned.


How do I get my work copyrighted?

One common misconception about copyright protection is that you have to do something in order to have a copyright on your piece. In actuality, copyright is an automatic thing: as soon as you create the work, you own the copyright, and that’s it. (There is at least one exception to this rule: if you write the piece as a “work for hire.” In that case, the “buyer”—the person who hired you to write for them—is the owner of the copyright.) Displaying a copyright credit, registering your copyright, publishing the piece: you don’t have to do any of it in order to own the copyright. But of course, there are some benefits to doing those things. We’ll get to that in a minute.

How do I keep people from stealing my work?

You’ve written this fantastic piece. You created it, and, boom,  you’ve got the copyright. Now it’s time to introduce it to the world; you’re submitting it places, maybe posting it on your blog, maybe getting it published. Here comes the question everyone wants the answer to: How do I keep people from stealing my work? Followed by the answer that no one wants to hear: You can’t. It’s impossible. Like it or not, if someone wants to steal your stuff, they’re just going to steal your stuff. There’s no way to stop someone from copying and pasting your work online, just as there’s no way to stop someone from opening your hardcover book and retyping your words as their own. All you can really do is keep an eye out for thieves and follow up if you find one.

Keep an eye out, you ask? Set up a Google Alert for yourself, or just do a regular Google search for key phrases from your piece and see if anything suspiciously familiar pops up. There are also tools like Copyscape out there that can search the web for you.

But what can I dooooo?

Let’s get back to displaying a copyright credit. A copyright notice (©) used to be a requirement for copyright protection, but is no longer. Even so, using it could be enough of a disincentive for the average person to try and copy your work. It works like a little sign that says, “Hey, I’ve got my eye on you.” Additionally, if you did end up legally pursuing someone who copied your work, they might say they didn’t know it was copyrighted, arguing “innocent infringement.” Having a simple copyright notice on your website or at the bottom of your piece, in that case, works in your favor. (By the way, we here at Hazel & Wren include a copyright notice at the bottom of every Open Mic page, stating that all Open Mic submissions maintain their author’s copyright.)

On to registering the copyright: again, it’s not required. Depending on your situation, though, registering the piece can have definite benefits, the most obvious being having legally-recognized evidence that you own the copyright. In order to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement, you need to register for copyright protection. Additionally, if the copyright was registered before the infringement, you’re eligible for additional damages and fees (more on this in Part 2). How do you register for copyright protection? Go to the United States Copyright Office ( for the application and fee information.

Should I register every single thing I write for copyright protection?

The folks behind the Online Copyright for Writers guide put it best, I think. Litigation is very expensive. If you can see yourself “fighting tooth and nail” for the protection of the piece, then getting it registered would be a smart move. “If on the other hand you can’t imagine pursuing legal action,” such as with a simple blog entry, then it might not be worth the registration fee for every single piece you write, saving registration for more important works that you envision getting published down the road. Additionally worth noting: if your work is being published, the publishing house will most likely take care of registering copyright already.

There are some other options to the Copyright Office registration, such as the WGA registry for screenwriters, and the Creative Barcode for designers (and any other creative folk, including writers). These provide more immediate piece of mind (a registration with the Copyright Office sometimes takes six months to process), and in some cases are slightly cheaper. Some writers may even decide to register in more than one place. Do be careful, though, of possible scam registries when conducting your own searches.


In “A Writer’s Guide to Copyright, Part 2,” I’ll outline what you can do if you end up finding an online thief. In the meantime, what are your own experiences with copyright? Do you register your work? All of it, all of the time? Do you use any other great registries?



For further information:

United States Copyright Office: registration forms, and tons of copyright info, including this overview
Online Copyright for Writers (PDF): free, easy-to-understand guide by

For our non-US friends:

World Intellectual Property Organization: International intellectual property system, by United Nations
Canadian Intellectual Property Office
Intellectual Property Office: United Kingdom
Australian Copyright Council
Copyright Council of New Zealand

Special shout-out to Marcy, who instigated this discussion!


6 Responses
  1. June 29, 2011

    First off, thanks for the link. I’m glad you liked my article and thank you for raising awareness about scam registries.

    I really like this series and will be paying attention for part two, some great advice here. However, I do want to add that there are other reasons you may want to consider registering a work other than litigation, including that it helps with contract negotiation and it provides verification as to when the work was created, verification that stands on its own in a court of law.

    Those two things combine to make registration a good idea for those seeking to license their work, even if they don’t plan on suing as it shows the creator is serious and prepared.

    Just a side thought. Thank you again for this piece and drawing attention to this issue!

    • Hazel permalink
      June 29, 2011

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your additional input! Absolutely, it’s definitely worth pointing out that copyright registration is a good idea for contract negotiation and is an overall indication that the creator is prepared.

      Your site has some great resources. Do you have any other thoughts about copyright that you think are worth noting? If so, please share!

  2. Timothy permalink
    June 29, 2011

    This is a fantastic post about something that should be talked about much more often, but often isn’t. Copyright is, in my experience, a confusing thing so having some simple explanation like this is great.

    In my, admittedly haphazard and not very in depth, research into copyright I came across something known as “poor man’s copyright” (I assume “poor woman’s copyright” is identical) wherein one can simply mail one’s self an envelope containing a piece and then keep it, unopened. Similar to a postmarked envelope being proof of residence, a sealed and postmarked envelope can act as proof of creation and ownership. Obviously, registering copyright is much more legitimate, but can this “poor [person]’s copyright” stand up in court or negotiations?

    Furthermore, in the music world there’s been a shift toward “copyleft” – using copyright to offer the right to distribute copies or remixes of a piece of work, provided those copies or remixes are also offered under the same conditions. Creative Commons ( is the most notable organization promoting the use of this method. Obviously, there are some differences between the music and publishing industries, but I wonder how a shift toward more open copyright in the literary world would effect the way we work.

    • Hazel permalink
      July 20, 2011

      I’m quite late in replying to this, sorry. But did want to mention a few things.

      I, too, came across the “poor (wo)man’s copyright” in my research. It appears, however, that its usefulness is unfortunately outdated. While I suppose having a sealed, postmarked envelope containing your work certainly wouldn’t hurt, there are no provisions in copyright law that says a “poor man’s copyright” will provide any protection, or that it can substitute for an actual copyright registration. My guess is that these days, when it’s relatively easy to fake a postmark, it wouldn’t stand up very well in court.

      I’m glad you mentioned Creative Commons! Even outside the music world, especially in the blogging world, I’ve seen a shift to “some rights reserved” rather than “all rights reserved.” It makes sense, if you think about it, especially online when the blogging world is all about sharing content. Fantastic.

  3. February 11, 2014

    Very interesting post. Thank you

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