Monday, September 12, 2011

My First Copyright

Technically the moment you create a work, you hold the copyright. (Source). The catch is if you want to bring a lawsuit against someone infringing on your copyright, you need to have registered your work with the United States Copyright Office. Basically, you have the copyright, but you can't defend it until you register.

Before we go any further, I am not a copyright lawyer or any kind of expert. Always do your own research.

So yesterday I was reading about a situation that happened two years ago, where an author noticed similarities between his work and another. The author, Angel Zapata, proceeded to expose a whole trail of plagiarized content published by a person named, Richard Ridyard. (See Angel's post for the full story). When the story broke, others came forward with similar stories about Ridyard. At one point, Ridyard even tried submitting a Stephen King story as his own. (See A Broken Laptop's post)

Ridyard -- which was actually the name of a deceased journalist and not an actual person, as far as anyone could tell -- seemed to target stories that were published electronically. Angel Zapata stumbled into the whole mess because he was sent his own story (or at least similar enough to recognize, with one line lifted verbatim) via an email subscription to a flash fiction web site.

As a writer who plans to embrace the internet as a distribution tool, my next thought was: what could I do if that happened to me? I'm about to have two stories online, both of which netted me essentially no money, but have given me an opportunity to get my name out and build up some publication credits.

Sort of defeats the purpose if I'm just handing my story to a plagiarizer.

So I went to the U.S. Copyright Office web site, and submitted registration documentation for "Eau de Public Transit." I did this for two reasons: primarily because I wanted to know how to do it, but also because it couldn't hurt.

Many of you know someone stole my whole blog around 2000. The guy took all of the text, put it on his own web site and coded the text so a single page scrolled through the content, then created an art installation around it. He set up a computer monitor in a London museum to display the text, set the monitor on a table, and painted the wall blue behind. He charged 1000 pounds for the piece.

I contacted a copyright lawyer at the time and there wasn't anything he could do to help. I couldn't afford to pay consulting fees and my copyright only existed so far as "my word versus his."

When I finally got a response from the artist--I didn't discover the show until after it had been over several months--he offered to split the sale of his work 50/50 if it sold. He considered my blog, "found art" and thought he was being fair and kind to help expose my work as he had.

He also never thought I'd find out.

I might be relaying this calmly, but it still makes me furious. If I have to explain why that guy was so incredibly wrong, I will. But I hope you can see the problem for yourself.

All of this led me to pay $35 to register Eau de Public Transit yesterday. The online process is fairly simple, if tedious, but after you go through it once you can save your responses as a template. If/when I do this again it will take much less time. Also, I understand that some people group their unpublished short stories together and submit as a collection. I can see why that would be preferable, cost-wise.

Aaaand that's the story of my first official copyright. Have a nice day.


Luna Lindsey said...

IANAL, but back in the day, you could mail yourself a sealed copy of the story, and that would constitute proof in a court of law, because the envelope was sealed with a postmark date. And certainly if something was published, it could be proven copywritten as of the date of publication.

It would seem to me there would be modern-day equivalents, i.e. if it's on the net, then maybe it's in the Wayback Machine archives, or if on a blog, maybe your blog stats showing the title of the article and the hits going back to X day. Or if it's published on a 3rd part website, then they should have records and possibly witnesses that they saw your work first.

There was a recent case of a cooking magazine stealing cooking-related blog posts and submissions from random people. That magazine ended up folding without it ever going to court, because of the public outcry.

Folly Blaine said...

Luna, the copyright website ( FAQ states, "'I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright.' What is it?
The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a 'poor man’s copyright.' There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

So mailing yourself a copy is not enough proof for litigation. A nice thing about the internet, as was the case with the cooking magazine and Ridyard, is you can often shame the perpetrator into changing behavior and avoid litigation. But, as far as the copyright website is concerned, you still need to file for registration to be able to bring legal action.

Interestingly, the FAQ also talks about recipes:

"How do I protect my recipe?
A mere listing of ingredients is not protected under copyright law. However, where a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a collection of recipes as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection. Note that if you have secret ingredients to a recipe that you do not wish to be revealed, you should not submit your recipe for registration, because applications and deposit copies are public records. See FL 122, Recipes."