Did You Notice? Copyright Attributions for Creators

I got a frantic call awhile back from a new client who told me she was facing a “copyright deadline” and was “running out of time” and didn’t think there was anything she could do about it.  When I pressed her on what ‘it’ was she said “you know, everything…the copyright, I mean.  I thought I had time but now I don’t and I’m screwed”.  Still confused, I asked her to start over at the beginning.  Based on her initial remarks I thought maybe she had a rights clearance issue, like maybe someone’s photograph that she wanted to use but hadn’t licensed.  Or maybe she’d lifted a bunch of text from somewhere else and was about to get caught out for plagiarism. 

Well, it was nothing like that.  Fortunately for her, she was just hopelessly misinformed and hadn’t a clue what she was talking about.  It turns out she had written an original, short fictional piece that she was sending to a magazine for possible publication as part of a contest they were running, and that the submission had to be sent off the day after tomorrow.  She was upset that she hadn’t yet registered her work with the copyright office where she lived (Philippines), and felt there wasn’t enough time to do it before the submission deadline.  She mistakenly thought that by mailing it to the publisher she would be publishing her work, and that publishing her work without first registering it would somehow place it into the public domain, so she asked me what to do.

I suggested that we both grab ourselves a fresh cup of coffee, and that she set her mind at ease with what I was about to tell her.  I went on to agree that while she was unlikely to obtain a copyright registration certificate that she hadn’t yet applied for in less than 48 hours, I assured her that there wasn’t any need to do that, and that she could still send her story off for submission without waiving any of her rights.  In the Philippines, as in the United States and virtually every other jurisdiction, original materials are automatically protected by copyright law immediately upon their creation, or more accurately at the moment they are fixed into some tangible medium of expression.  There is no further legal requirement to register the work in order to receive the benefit of copyright protection, though most jurisdictions provide strong incentives for doing so.  In this case, her story was protected by copyright simply because she typed it up into a word document.  Had it been a song she composed it would have been protected as soon as she recorded a version of it on her handphone.   Photographs are protected by copyright as soon as they are taken by the photographer. 

Although copyrights may be freely transferred or assigned this invariably requires a written document, so unless and until you sign away your rights you remain the copyright owner of all your creative works.   As the copyright owner, you have an exclusive right to permit or prohibit your work’s commercial reproduction and distribution, otherwise known as its publication.  Publication is the distribution of copies or your work to the public by its sale or transfer of ownership or by means of its temporary rental.  Submitting your work privately to another party – even a publisher – merely for their review and consideration would not ordinarily constitute publication.  So far so good: our friend automatically owns all rights in her original story, and submitting it with first registering it will not affect that.

What I suggested she still had time to do, as an added means of protection erring on the side of caution was incorporate a copyright notice somewhere in the story before sending it in.  This is a quick and easy, cost-effective (i.e., free) self-help mechanism that serves to communicate your claim of ownership in your protected works to the world at large. A properly worded and internationally recognized copyright notice further signals that you are aware of the law and your enforceable rights, and what permissions, if any, you are extending for its further use.  It helps you to prove that subsequent infringers knew or should have known that you are the owner of the work, as well as providing useful information for people seeking your consent for its legal use.

A proper copyright notice for a literary work typically includes up to four common elements: (1) the word “copyright” or the © symbol; (2) the year the materials were published’ (3) the name of the creator or copyright owner; and (4) the extent of rights being reserved or granted.  A simple example of a pertinent copyright notice might therefore be:  © 2024 John Doe.  All rights reserved.  Most author-publisher agreements will include a provision requiring the use of an agreed copyright notice in all published versions, excerpts, reprints and adaptations of the work.

However, its perfectly fine for authors to incorporate their own copyright notices in their unpublished (or unregistered) works as well, which I recommended to our friend.  In her case, the suggestion was to add the words “Unpublished story by [name]” before the “© 2024 [name].  All rights reserved” designation at the beginning or end of the text.  We also discussed how best to confirm her requirement of a formal usage agreement in the event of the publisher’s interest, and her reservation of rights in the meantime.

In this case there turned out not to be any copyright deadline after all, and we even figured out something to do about ‘it’.   Though the solution was pretty simple given the circumstances, other nuances involving copyright notices include their use on website materials you create that are updated frequently, or on mobile applications, or in downloadable materials, or even in email communications.  Authors should also make proper use of copyright notices whenever they are reproducing other creators’ works, such as a licensed photograph or a lyrical excerpt from a musical composition. 

© 2024 Frank Rittman. All Rights Reserved

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