Note: This post was originally scheduled for 9/13/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.
No, I’m not saying copyright isn’t important. I’m saying that, like global warming, it exists without you doing anything at all. Let’s get right to it.
I received an email from a former editing client. The subject line was “intellectual property?” His entire email read
Do you know anything about intellectual property rights and trademarks?
The title of my book was part of the book’s Library of Congress copyright some ten years ago. If a company wanted to use the phrase for commercial purposes—say, “[It was a sentence, not a phrase, and I deleted it to maintain the anonymity of the former client]” in response to something [they were developing]—would I have any intellectual property rights with respect to this phrase?
Or could it be trademarked?
Instead of inserting only my very brief response, since I decided to use this as a blog post that others might find cynical, humorous, and maybe even informative and useful, I also decided to enhance my response a bit. So here’s what I told him, plus some other stuff:
First, I am not an attorney or lawyer or legal counselor or other monkey pro tem of regalia. I don’t pretend to be, and I don’t even play one on television.
What I’m about to tell you is true, if perhaps a tad snarky. But that doesn’t mean someone with more money than sense couldn’t use the courts to twist it all out of shape and make your life a living H E Double Toothpicks. Now to the guy’s questions…
1. Your work is copyrighted, meaning it’s recognized the world over as your intellectual property the moment it’s in fixed form (manuscript, analog or digital recording, whatever).
2. The copyright applies only to the work as a whole, and you cannot copyright the title. (Let me say that part again. You cannot copyright a title.)
Your work is copyrighted even if you don’t register the copyright with the copyright office.
Also note that the Library of Congress has absolutely nothing to do with it. The title of your book was and is part of the overall work, and the overall work was and is copyrighted in your name.
But it wasn’t “the book’s Library of Congress copyright.”There’s no such thing. If you believe obtaining a Library of Congress Catalogue Number (LCCN) registered your copyright, well, it didn’t.
2.a. Y’know, back when I started writing, as soon as I finished writing ANYTHING, I’d race down to the post office, pick up a copyright registration form, fill it out, and mail it along with a $25 check and one copy of the completed work to the copyright office.
All of that is completely unnecessary, and I suspect it costs a good deal more now too.
If you insist on registering your copyright with the copyright office, I suggest you do so once a year.
For example, gather everything you’ve written from January 1 through December 31 and register it for one fee under the title Literary Works of [Insert Your Name], whatever year it is.
Is that legal? Absolutely. In fact, if I wanted to register my copyrights beginning right now (which I don’t), I would fill out one form and compile one massive document titled Literary Works of Harvey Stanbrough, 1957–2012, and send it off, still under that one fee.
If I were paranoid enough, I might even add a picture or my Social Security number or something to be sure some other Harvey Stanbrough couldn’t pop out of the woodwork and claim ownership of my work. (After all, my work is so very special that simply everyone who’s anyone in the world of literature is falling all over themselves wanting to claim it as their very own!)
Then I could start fresh with 2013, 2014, et cetera.
However, please note that I no longer register my work with the Copyright Office because, in my opinion, doing so is a waste of money and time and my well-groomed and highly valued ego.
2.b. That brings us to the Library of Congress and the vaunted LCCN.
Listen carefully: the LCCN—Library of Congress Catalogue Number, which 99.83652987% of novice authors fret over (a recent study estimates that 99.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot)—doesn’t even ensure that your work is in the actual Library of Congress.
Most novice writers, from what I’ve been able to discern, believe they either “have” to have an LCCN or that having one will somehow cause their work to be enshrined in the Library of Congress. Neither case is true.
Requesting and purchasing (yep, it costs money) an LCCN only ensures a listing in their catalogue, which again does absolutely nothing to benefit the author or the work.
For all I know, they might even take your money and say your work is listed in their catalogue when it actually isn’t. Who knows? Have you ever seen an actual copy of the Library of Congress Catalogue? In fact, if any of you have acquired (bought) an LCCN, do they even tell you that your book is now listed in the Catalogue? I don’t know, but I’ll bet not.
3. As I mentioned earlier, you cannont copyright a title.
Now, you CAN trademark your title if you want to, if it hasn’t already been trademarked, but I understand registering a trademark costs a boatload of money. To research the possibility, I recommend the second link below (if it’s still valid). They’ll have all the information you’re looking for.
Okay, that last paragraph was what I actually told the guy who asked my advice, except that I told him to just key in “register a copyright” and “register a trademark” (at different times) into a search engine like Yahoo or Google. Doing so should lead you to a government site.
I searched for those terms myself in preparation for this post, and I suspect there are many scam outfits out there who are ready and anxious to take your hard-earned cash and then tell you that your copyright or trademark has been registered. I suggest you stay away from all sources other than the actual federal government websites. Here are a couple of links for you:
US Copyright Office http://www.copyright.gov/
US Patent and Trademark Office http://www.uspto.gov/
Okay, I guess that’s about it for this time.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.