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The Copyright Handbook

What Every Writer Needs to Know

If you work with words, you need this book

Learn everything you need to know about copyrights including how to:

  • understand copyright protection
  • register your copyright
  • shut down infringers
  • get permission to use copyrighted work

Useful for authors and other creators.

See below for a full product description.

  • Product Details
  • No writer likes to see their hard work or creativity copied by others—or to be accused of copying. Fortunately, The Copyright Handbook provides everything you need to protect yourself. Find information and forms to help you:

    • learn what copyright law protects and doesn’t
    • register your work with the Copyright Office
    • deal with infringers, online and off
    • transfer ownership of a copyright
    • learn about artificial intelligence and copyright
    • understand the “fair use” rule
    • obtain permission to use copyrighted work, and
    • profit from your copyright.

    The 15th edition is updated with key court decisions and emerging rules in order to provide the latest guidance on registering and protecting your work.

    “Presents a lucid, jargon-free explanation of copyright laws….”—Library Journal

    “For anyone who creates written works…The Copyright Handbook is as essential as a dictionary”—Business LifeSource


    Number of Pages
    Included Forms
    • Work-Made-for-Hire Agreement
    • Copyright Assignment
    • Collaboration Agreement
    • Copyright License
    • Work-Made-for-Hire Letter Agreement
    • Copyright Permission Request Letter
    • Text Permission Agreement
    • Text Permission Letter Agreement
    • Faie Use Checklist
  • About the Author
  • Table of Contents
  • Your Legal Companion

    1. Copyright Basics

    • Why Have a Copyright Law?
    • What Is Copyright?
    • How Is a Copyright Created and Protected?
    • What Copyright Protects
    • Limitations on Copyright Protection
    • Copyright Ownership and Transfer of Ownership
    • How Long a Copyright Lasts
    • Copyright Infringement
    • Other Protections for Intellectual Property

    2. Copyright Notice

    • Introduction: The Little “c” in a Circle
    • Why Provide a Copyright Notice on Published Works?
    • When to Provide Notice
    • Notices for Online Works
    • Form of Notice
    • Notice on Compilations and Adaptations
    • Where to Place a Copyright Notice
    • Other Information Near the Notice
    • Copyright Notice on Unpublished Manuscripts

    3. Copyright Registration

    • What Is Copyright Registration?
    • Why Register?
    • What Can and Should Be Registered
    • Who Can Register?
    • Registration as a Single Unit
    • Registering Derivative Works and Compilations
    • How to Register
    • Online Copyright Registration
    • Registering Using Form TX and Other Paper Application Forms
    • Registering Newspapers, Magazines, Newsletters, and Other Serial Publications
    • Registering a Group of Contributions to Serials
    • Registering Works Created with Artificial Intelligence
    • Registering Websites
    • Group Registration of Short Online Literary Works
    • Registering Multimedia Works
    • Registering Contents of Databases
    • Satisfying Copyright Office Deposit Requirements
    • Your Registration Is Effective When the Application Is Received
    • Expedited Registration
    • Preregistration of Unpublished Works
    • Dealing With the Copyright Office
    • Full-Term Retention of Physical Deposits
    • Supplementary Registration

    4. What Copyright Protects

    • What Copyright Protects: Tangible, Original Expression
    • Three Requirements for Copyrightability
    • What Copyright Does Not Protect: The Boundaries of the Public Domain
    • Distinguishing Between Copyrightable and Non-Copyrightable Material: Putting It All Together
    • Copyright in the Online World
    • Copyright and Works Created with Generative Artificial Intelligence

    5. Adaptations and Compilations

    • Derivative Works
    • Compilations

    6. Initial Copyright Ownership

    • Independent Authorship by an Individual
    • Works Made for Hire
    • Jointly Authored Works

    7. Transferring Copyright Ownership

    • How Copyright Ownership Rights Are Transferred to Others
    • Rights Retained by Author After Transfer
    • Copyright Transfers Between Freelance Writers and Magazines and Other Periodicals
    • Copyright Transfers Between Writers and Book Publishers
    • Electronic Publishing and Ownership of Electronic Rights
    • Transfer Documents
    • Marriage, Divorce, and Copyright Ownership
    • Recording Copyright Transfers With the Copyright Office

    8. Copyright Duration

    • Works Created 1978 and Later
    • End-of-Calendar-Year Rule
    • Works Created but Not Published or Registered Before January 1, 1978
    • Works Published or Registered Before January 1, 1978
    • Works First Published Outside the United States Before 1978
    • Duration of Copyright in Adaptations (Derivative Works)
    • Termination of Transfers of Renewal Term Rights in Pre‑1978 Works

    9. Using Other Authors’ Words: Fair Use

    • Introduction
    • Introduction to the Fair Use Privilege
    • When Is a Use a Fair Use?
    • Fair Use Online
    • Fair Use and the Photocopy Machine
    • Copying by Libraries and Archives
    • Other Fair Uses

    10. Copyright Infringement: What It Is, What to Do About It, How to Avoid It

    • What Is Copyright Infringement?
    • How to Know Whether You Have a Valid Infringement Claim
    • When Copying Is Allowed
    • Self-Help Remedies for Copyright Infringement
    • Overview of Copyright Infringement Lawsuits
    • What You Can Get If You Win: Remedies for Copyright Infringement
    • Filing a Smaller Infringement Claim with the Copyright Claims Board
    • Special Considerations for Online Copyright Infringement
    • What to Do If You’re Accused of Infringement

    11. International Copyright Protection

    • International Protection for U.S. Citizens and Nationals
    • Protection in the United States for Non-U.S. Citizens
    • Copyright Protection in Canada
    • Marketing Your Work in Foreign Countries

    12. Copyright and Taxation

    • Writers’ Income Tax Deductions
    • Taxation of Copyright Income

    13. Obtaining Copyright Permissions

    • Start With the Copyright Clearance Center
    • Contact the Author
    • Special Situations
    • When You Can’t Find the Rights Holder
    • Negotiating Text Permission and Fees

    14. Help Beyond This Book

    • Intensive Background Resources
    • Primary Source Materials on Copyright
    • Finding a Copyright Lawyer


    How to Use the Downloadable Forms on the Nolo website

    • Editing RTFs
    • List of Forms



  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 1

    Copyright Basucs

    This chapter introduces some basic copyright concepts and vocabulary. It paves the way for more detailed discussions in later chapters. So, we urge you not to use material in this chapter to reach a final conclusion about any particular issue. Only after reading one or more of the later chapters will you be in a position to make a judgment about a particular question or course of action.

    Why Have a Copyright Law?

    The framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized that everyone would benefit if creative people were encouraged to create new intellectual and artistic works. When the Constitution was written in 1787, the drafters took care to include a copyright clause (Article I, Section 8) providing that “The Congress shall have Power…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors…the exclusive Right to their…writings.”

    The primary purpose of copyright, then, is not to enrich authors; rather, it is to promote the progress of science and the useful arts—that is, human knowledge. To pursue this goal, copyright encourages authors in their creative efforts by giving them a mini-monopoly over their works—termed a “copyright.” But this monopoly is limited when it appears to conflict with the overriding public interest in encouraging creation of new intellectual and artistic works generally.

    What Is Copyright?

    Copyright is a legal device that provides the creator of a work of art or literature, or a work that conveys information or ideas, the right to control how others use the work.

    The Copyright Act of 1976—the federal law providing for copyright protection—grants authors a bundle of intangible, exclusive rights over their work. These rights include:

    • reproduction right—the right to make copies of a protected work
    • distribution right—the right to sell or otherwise distribute copies to the public
    • right to create adaptations (or derivative works)—the right to prepare new works based on the protected work, and
    • performance and display rights— the right to perform a protected work, such as a stage play, or to display a work in public.

    An author’s copyright rights may be exercised only by the author (or by a person or an entity to whom the author has transferred all or part of their rights). If someone wrongfully uses the material covered by the copyright, the copyright owner can sue and recover damages for any losses suffered.

    In this sense, a copyright is a type of property—it belongs to its owner (usually the author), and the courts can be asked to intervene if anyone uses a copyrighted work without permission. And, like other forms of property, a copyright may be sold by its owner or otherwise exploited for their economic benefit.

    Some Common Copyright Misconceptions

    Copyright is a confusing and fast-changing area of the law. Many people have ideas about copyright that simply aren’t true. For example:

    • A work must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protected by copyright.
      Copyright protection begins automatically the moment a work is set to paper or otherwise fixed in a tangible form.
    • Only works that have a copyright notice on them are protected by copyright.
      Use of copyright notices has been optional since March 1, 1989.
    • No one can use a protected work without the owner’s permission.
      This has never been true. You can use protected works so long as the action falls within the bounds of fair use— that is, doesn’t diminish the value of the protected work.
    • You can copyright your great ideas.
      This also has never been true. Copyright protects only the expression of an idea, not the idea itself.

    How Is a Copyright Created and Protected?

    A copyright automatically comes into existence the moment an author fixes their words in some tangible form—for instance, the moment a book or an article is inputted into a computer, handwritten, or dictated. No further action need be taken.

    However, it is wise to place a valid copyright notice on all published works and to register these works in the U.S. Copyright Office shortly after publication.


    Prior to 1989, all published works had to contain a copyright notice (the © symbol followed by the publication date and copyright owner’s name) to be protected by copyright. Using copyright notices is now optional. Even so, it is always a good idea to include a copyright notice on all published works, to alert potential copiers that the work is copyrighted. See Chapter 2 for more information on copyright notices.


    Prompt registration in the U.S. Copyright Office makes your copyright a matter of public record. Moreover, you must register your work before you are allowed to file a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court to enforce your rights. To register a work, you complete a registration application (normally online) and deposit online or physical copies of your work with the Copyright Office. Chapter 3 deals with copyright registration.

    What Constitutes Publication

    Knowing whether a work has been published can be important, because many important copyright rules differ for published and unpublished works, including registration requirements, some copyright terms, and fair use. A work is published for copyright purposes when copies are sold, rented, lent, given away, or otherwise distributed to the public by the copyright owner or by others acting with the owner’s permission—for example, a publisher. It isn’t necessary to sell thousands of copies of a work for it to be considered published. So long as copies of a work are made available to the public, the work is “published” for copyright purposes, even if no copies are actually sold or otherwise distributed.

    Publication does not occur when:

    • Copies of the work are made but not distributed.
    • The text of the work is performed publicly (for example, a speech is presented).
    • The text of the work is displayed (for example, in a slide presentation or on television).

    A “limited publication” is also not considered a publication. Limited publication occurs if copies are distributed only to:

    • a selected group of people
    • for a limited purpose, and
    • without the right of further reproduction, distribution, or sale.

    For example, it is not a publication when an author sends copies of a manuscript to several publishers seeking publication.

    What Copyright Protects

    Copyright protects an author’s original works—that is, works that aren’t copied from other authors’ works. Because the main goal of copyright is to encourage creation of new intellectual and artistic works, it follows that copyright protection extends only to material authors write themselves.

    There is also no reason to protect works that are purely mechanical or clerical acts. Protecting works such as certain blank forms wouldn’t help develop the arts and sciences. Likewise, copyright protects only works—or elements of works—created by humans. Works created solely by computers without human input are not copyrightable.

    An author must employ a minimal amount of creativity in creating the work. This doesn’t mean that to be protectable a work has to be a great work of art, but a minimal amount of thought or judgment must be involved in its creation.

    Also, a work needn’t be entirely new to be protectable. Copyright protects new material an author adds to a previously existing work. For example, copyright protects “derivative works.” A derivative work is created by adapting or transforming previously written material into a new work of authorship. Examples include a screenplay or stage play based on a novel, an English translation of a work written in a foreign language, and condensed versions of articles. Copyright can also protect “compilations.” In a compilation, preexisting materials are selected, coordinated, and arranged so that a new work of authorship is created—for example, anthologies or catalogs.

    Adaptations and compilations are covered in Chapter 5.

    Limitations on Copyright Protection

    We’ve seen that the purpose of copyright is to encourage intellectual and artistic creation. But at the same time, giving authors too much copyright protection can inhibit rather than enhance creative growth. To avoid this, some important limitations on copyright protection have been developed.

    Ideas and Facts Are Not Protected

    Copyright protects only the words with which a writer expresses facts and ideas. Copyright doesn’t protect the facts or ideas themselves; facts and ideas are free for anyone to use. To give authors a monopoly over the facts and ideas contained in their work would hinder intellectual and artistic progress, not encourage it. For example, imagine how scientific progress would have suffered if Charles Darwin could have prevented anyone else from writing about evolution after he published On the Origin of Species.

    Works that rely on imagination, such as poetry, novels and plays, enjoy more copyright protection than more factual works, such as histories, biographies, how-to books, news stories, and so forth. This isn’t to suggest that works of nonfiction don’t contain lots of creative, copyrightable expression. They do, but the underlying facts aren’t included in those copyrights.

    We go deeper into what copyright does and doesn’t protect in Chapter 4.

    Fair Use

    To foster the advancement of the arts and sciences, a free flow of information and ideas must exist. If no one could quote from a protected work without the author’s permission (which could be withheld or given only upon payment of a permission fee), the free flow of ideas would be stopped dead.

    To avoid this outcome, courts and then Congress created a special fair use exception to authors’ copyright rights. An author is free to copy from a protected work for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, or research, so long as the value of the copyrighted work isn’t diminished. Fair use is discussed at length in Chapter 9.

    Works in the Public Domain

    Any work that isn’t protected by copyright is in the public domain. This includes works where the copyright was lost or has expired and works authored or created by the federal government. Public domain means what it says—such works belong to the public as a whole. Anyone is free to use them any way they wish without asking anyone’s permission. And no one can ever obtain copyright protection for public domain material, no matter how much the person transforms it. Everything published in the United States more than 95 years ago now exists in the public domain, freely available to us all.

    Copyright Ownership and Transfer of Ownership

    Initially, the work’s author or authors own the copyright in a protectable work. But a person need not actually create the work to be its “author” for copyright purposes. A protectable work written by an employee as part of a job is initially owned by the employer—that is, the employer is considered to be the work’s author. Such works are called “works made for hire.” Works created by nonemployees who sign work-made-for-hire agreements may also be works made for hire.

    Like any other property, a copyright can be bought and sold. This is the way most authors profit from their work. Typically, authors sell their work to publishers for a fee or royalty. However, transfers of copyright ownership are unique in one respect: Authors or their heirs have the right to terminate any transfer of copyright ownership 35 years after it is made.

    Copyright ownership and transfers are discussed in Chapters 6 and 7.

    How Long a Copyright Lasts

    Few things in this world last as long as copyright protection. Indeed, an author’s work is likely to be long forgotten before the copyright in it expires. The copyright in works created after 1977 by individuals usually lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. The copyright in works created by employees for their employers lasts for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever occurs first.

    The copyright in works created and published between 1923 and 1963 lasts for 95 years from the date of publication, if the copyright was timely renewed by the copyright owner 28 years after publication. It might be necessary to do some legwork to determine whether a renewal was filed for a work. The copyright in works published between 1964 and 1977 lasts for 95 years regardless of whether a renewal was filed. The copyright in works created but not published before 1978 lasts at least until 70 years after the author dies.

    We cover the duration of copyright in Chapter 8.

    Copyright Infringement

    Copyright infringement occurs when a person other than the copyright owner exploits one or more of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights without the owner’s permission. This type of theft is also commonly termed “copyright piracy. “The Copyright Act doesn’t prevent copyright infringement from occurring, just as the laws against auto theft don’t prevent cars from being stolen. However, the Copyright Act does give an author a legal remedy after an infringement has occurred: The author may sue the infringer in federal court.

    An author who wins an infringement suit can stop any further infringement, get infringing copies destroyed, obtain damages from the infringer (often the amount of any profits obtained from the infringement), and recover other monetary losses. This means, in effect, that an author can make the “copyright pirate” restore the author to the same economic position as if the infringement had never occurred. And, in some cases, the copyright owner might even be able to obtain monetary penalties that far exceed actual losses.

    See Chapter 10 for more information on copyright infringement.

    Other Protections for Intellectual Property

    The copyright law isn’t the only means available to protect economically valuable products of human intellect. State and federal trademark laws protect distinctive words, phrases, logos, and other symbols used to identify products and services in the marketplace. The federal patent law protects new inventions. State and federal trade secret laws may protect novel and generally unknown ideas, processes, or technical designs that provide a commercial advantage in the marketplace.


    The copyright laws don’t protect names, titles, or short phrases. This is where trademark protection comes in. Under both federal and state laws a manufacturer, merchant, or group associated with a product or service can obtain protection for a word, phrase, logo, or other symbol used to distinguish that product or service from others. If a competitor uses a protected trademark, the trademark holder can obtain a court injunction (an order to stop the unlawful use) and monetary damages.

    Example: The word “Kleenex” is a registered trademark of Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc. None of Kimberly-Clark’s competitors can use this word on a box of facial tissues without Kimberly-Clark’s consent. If they do, Kimberly-Clark could get a court to order them to stop and could sue for damages.

    Trademark laws are often used in conjunction with copyright laws to protect advertising copy. The trademark laws protect the product or service name and any slogans used in the advertising, and the copyright laws protect any additional literal expression that the ad contains.

    It’s advisable to register valuable trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. See Trademark: Legal Care for Your Business & Product Name, by Stephen Fishman (Nolo), for detailed guidance.


    By filing for and obtaining a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, an inventor is granted a monopoly on the use and commercial exploitation of an invention for a limited time. A patent may protect the functional features of a machine, process, manufactured item, method of doing business, composition of matter, ornamental design, or a sexually reproduced plant. A patent also protects new uses for any such items. However, to obtain a patent, the invention must be novel and nonobvious.

    Example: Mickey invents an entirely new and nonobvious type of mousetrap. He applies for a patent on his invention. If and when the patent is issued, no one can make, use, or sell Mickey’s invention without his permission for the term (length) of the patent (20 years from the date the patent application was filed). If they do, Mickey can sue them for patent infringement.

    The basic difference between a patent and a copyright is that a patent protects ideas as expressed in an invention, whether a machine or process of some type. Copyright protects only the words an author uses to express an idea, not the idea itself.

    Example: Mary invented the widget, a device only dreamed about for decades. She obtains a patent for her invention. She manufactures and sells the widget herself. She also writes and publishes a technical manual, The Widget Owner’s Survival Guide. The patent law prevents anyone from manufacturing and selling widgets without Mary’s permission. The copyright law prevents anyone from copying the manual without Mary’s permission.

    Obtaining a patent can be a difficult and time-consuming process (it usually takes years). See Patent It Yourself, by David Pressman and David E. Blau (Nolo), for a detailed discussion.

    Trade Secrets

    A trade secret is information or know-how that isn’t generally known in the community and that provides its owner with a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The information can be an idea, written words, a formula, a process or procedure, a technical design, a list, a marketing plan, or any other secret that gives the owner an economic advantage.

    If a trade secret’s owner takes reasonable steps to keep the confidential information or know-how secret, the courts of most states will protect the owner from disclosures of the secret by:

    • the owner’s employees
    • other persons with a duty not to make such disclosures
    • industrial spies, and
    • competitors who wrongfully acquire the information.

    That is, the trade secret’s owner may be able to sue the infringer and obtain an injunction or damages. However, once information becomes widely known—for example, through publication—it loses its trade secret status and courts won’t protect it.

    Example: Recall that Mary, in the second patent law example above, wrote a training manual for her widget invention. This manual was automatically protected by copyright. If the manual is also kept confidential (Mary allows only her employees to read it and makes them sign agreements to keep it confidential), it might also be entitled to trade secret protection. However, once Mary publishes and distributes the manual widely to the public, any trade secret protection would cease.

    Because most authors want their work to be published and as widely read as possible, trade secret laws usually have little application to written works. However, trade secret protection can be important to authors of written works containing competitively advantageous information that has been kept confidential. Trade secret protection is provided primarily under state law and varies from state to state.


    Contract Protection for Ideas

    Consider this example: Manny, a TV producer, agrees to pay Sally $100,000 for telling him an idea she has for a new TV show. Sally tells Manny the idea, but he fails to pay. Does Sally have any recourse against Manny?

    We know that copyright doesn’t protect ideas, so Sally cannot sue Manny for copyright infringement. Her idea is not for a new invention, so she gets no help from the patent laws. And let’s assume the idea isn’t a trade secret.

    All isn’t lost for Sally, because some courts have held that if a person agrees to pay another person for disclosing an idea, the agreement constitutes an enforceable contract.

    This means that if the person fails to pay as promised, the person who disclosed the idea might be able to sue and collect the promised payment. This might mean that Sally can sue Manny for breach of contract and collect the $100,000. Some courts would permit Sally the $100,000 only if her idea was novel and concrete and Manny actually used it. Others wouldn’t require novelty and use.

    However, very few Mannys or Sallys exist in the real world. Rarely, if ever, will a producer, a publisher, an editor, or another person agree to pay an author for a mere idea. Thus, contract protection for ideas is usually more theoretical than real. The best way to protect your ideas is to use nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and to disclose your valuable ideas only to people whose integrity can be trusted.

    We hope you enjoyed this sample. The complete book is available for sale here at

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