Most people have heard of Copyright, but the exact details of it are confusing. As an author, you need to understand exactly what Copyright is, what it can and can not do, and how it applies to your works.
Intellectual Property - writing, music, art, any product of creative thought - is a unique form in that it is Intangible. A book is tangible: the story in it is not. When you buy a novel, you are buying the paper and ink, but you are Licensing the story in it under a limited License for your personal use. Since Intangible property is uniquely vulnerable to being copied, it comes under a special category of law called Copyright Law.
The fundimental issue in Copyright Law is not ownership: it is impossible to keep track of every Xerox copy and download out there. Copyright Law deals with the Right of publication. A Copyright does not give you ownership of your work: you own it by creating it. Nor does Copyright grant you permission to publish your work. What Copyright does is give you the power to forbid others from publishing your work.
When you offer a work for publication, you license specific Rights to the publisher. These are broken down into exactly defined formats, the best known being English Language Mass Market Paperback Rights. There are Rights to every conceivable format: Hard Cover, Large Type, Foreign Language(s), Braille, Movie and TV, Comic Book, even Elvish and Klingon. Rights may be limited to specific Imprints, fixed time periods, Regional Distribution - basically any variation on a theme for which a legal description can be written.
There are also Derivitive Rights based on the original work. You cannot, for example, take a character out of one story and use it in another story. You cannot use props, settings, or concepts from a Copyright work: no phasers, no Ringworld, and the Force is definitely not with you. You cannot create an artistic rendering (Calendar Art) or an audio book based on a text without being granted Rights from the Copyright holder. As long as the subject matter or any part thereof can be clearly identified as coming from a Copyright work, it is protected.
There are limited exceptions to Copyright under what is known as Fair Useage. This generally relates to quoting brief passages for reviews or as references for scholarly works, which are given Attribution to the source. As a practical matter, you can usually get away with quoting a well turned line or two unless it is something high profile: having a character say "I'm a Doctor, not an Engineer!" is pushing your luck. If you need to quote a passage from a Copyright work, it is always best to contact the Rights holder (usually the author) to ask permission. Of course, you should attribute the quote on the Rights Page.
Under current law, a Copyright is good for fifty years after the death of the author. Thereafter a work becomes Public Domain and can be copied by anyone. There is a caviat to that: while the Copyright may have expired, often certain distinct elements, such as a title or an illustration, may be separately protected by Trademark. Trademarks are for ever as long as the Rights holder exercises that Right on occasion by a limited general publication. So when contemplating Public Domain works, be wary of Trademarked elements. Alice In Wonderland is Public Domain; the classic illustration of Tweedledum and Tweedledee is Trademarked.
Copyrights are issued by the Library Of Congress, for a fee. Registering your work is called Perfecting your Copyright. The big issue in Copyright litigation is proving that you created the idea first, which is where a Perfected Copyright serves its main good. A Perfected Copyright essentially is the US Government saying, "Yes, he was there first." A Perfected Copyright, while desirable, is not essential to your case. There are a number of alternative methods of proving prior ownership. Sealing a copy in an envelope and mailing it to yourself is NOT valid under law. A good proof is the SRO Card issued by Bowker when you register for an ISBN number. Your best defense in any matter of litigation is to build up a broad array of proofs, including SRO Cards, Perfected Copyrights, publication of passages in the magazines, magazine reviews, etc.
There are real-world limits to what Copyright can do for you. Essentially it gives you the power to order someone to cease and desist, and if they don't do so, you have the power to sue for redress. However, you are pretty much on your own in this: unless you are talking a high dollar value infringement, such as pirated movie DVDs, the government won't come galloping to the rescue. As a small scale author, you have to accept that your works will be copied and passed around among friends from time to time, and there is little you can do about it. Most download formats can be equipped with Digital Rights Management, but as a practical matter, DRM can be broken so easily as to be useless. Perhaps your best defense in this is to establish a good rapport with the reading public so that they will be less inclined to cheat someone they like and respect.
Finally, each of your works should have a Rights Page, usually right after the Title Page. This should include identifying information such as the ISBN Number, and a statement "Copyright © by (your name), (year of publication), All Rights Reserved." to serve as official legal notice that the work is protected.
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