As always, I’m not a lawyer… but I have been around a while. Use any of my articles talking legal or economics, only as a starting point. Do your due diligence. Speak with a legal or financial professional before making any lasting decisions.
This info is available elsewhere online, but since I see the questions come up so often, here goes. For those wondering about copyright:
Copyright is a legal protection afforded to creators. It’s basically the gooberment legally acknowledging the owner of a tangible work. (my words.)
From copyright.gov “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.”
So the minute you write your story, it has copyright protection. Even if you write a script then stick it in a drawer and no one ever sees it, that work is still copyrighted.
Keep in mind you can not copyright an idea. You can only copyright a specific expression of an idea.
Marvel can copyright stories of the Hulk, the character of the Hulk… but the can’t copyright the idea of a man turning into a primal beast when he gets angry.
Registering a Copyright:
So you write a comic script, issue #1 of Catman, stick it in a drawer, then decide to follow a more lucrative career path and become a dentist. Years later, somehow, someway, Marvel releases Felineman #1, which is nearly identical to your script.
You hire a group of lawyers and decide to sue Marvel into the stone age… The problem is, although you created your Catman years before Marvel’s Felineman… no one knew about it. You never published it and never registered it.
Now you have to SOMEHOW, prove that your version was the original and you didn’t steal it from Marvel.
Can it be done? Sure… possibly. (Lawyers much? Time much? Money much?)
But if you had registered it to begin with, you would have an official certificate saying “script #xyz123” is registered by you, years before Marvel’s release. That is strong legal footing to win a copyright infringement case.
Registering a creative work of fiction cost $35.
They raised the price a year or so ago to $55, but you can still find the link to register a single work for $35 if you scroll down on their registration page–conveniently buried.
The Copyright Office is the Government:
They can be a bit Gestapo.
You register a work online (which takes maybe 30 minutes to set up the first time and about 5 minutes each time thereafter, if your personal details haven’t changed), pay the money then WAIT for them to send you a registration certificate… OR…
A rejection letter.
Oh yes, the Copyright Office can reject your registration for any number of reasons. In fact, I just got a rejection letter the other day. It’s a form letter that says your work is rejected for one of the following 10 reasons… Insert 10 ambiguous reasons here (you can check the requirements on their website).
Which one did I violate?
Hell if I know, as far as I’m concerned, it met all the criteria.
Now here’s the fun part.
The copyright keeps your $35 or $55 bucks no matter what. And if you want to dispute the rejection, ya need to pony up and additional $250.00 for a second review. And even then, they might stick to the rejection and you guessed it, keep the additional $250.
Time frame for Copyright:
Did I mention getting that approval or rejection letter can take… well, forever? I once remember logging onto the Copyright registry and seeing a notice that they were backed up for 6-12 months or more.
Not really a big deal if they approve your registration, as registration begins the day you send it in, NOT the day it’s approved.
However, what if they reject you… after 12 months? I assume there is no copy of the rejected script kept on file that you can fall back on as any kind of formal evidence of law(not sure on this). If not, that means if someone else swooped in and registered a similar copy during that time, and got it approved, you’d be in a world of hurt.
Should you Copyright:
$35/55 is a small price to pay to give your work an added layer of protection.
Look, the odds are you’re never gonna need to defend a copyright, at least on the vast majority of the work you register… But, you could work your whole life as a writer and only have ONE BREAK OUT IP.
What if that’s the IP that runs into copyright trouble?
Are you willing to risk, having the chance to have a big writer’s pay day and lose out cause some grade D publisher claims you stole the idea?
Also, if you structure you contracts well… Holding the copyright is important. If you don’t register the copyright, a client can contest ownership. But if your contract says you own the IP, and then you register it, you’re on pretty solid footing. Sometimes just reminding a client trying to skip on paying that you hold the registered copyright is enough to get them to honor an agreement and do right.
Like an idea, you can’t copyright a name.
Instead of Copyright, Trademarks protects names, arrangements of words, and logos. From copyright.gov
A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.
Trademarking is a more complex world. There are both state and federal implications. And dealing with registering trademarks can easily head into the hundreds of dollars territory, I seem to remember trademark searching alone being a complex and pricey process.
If I also remember correctly, like Copyright, you automatically have some Trademark protection just by using the mark in a official capacity. Printing out your logo and taping it to the side of the catbox in your bathroom doesn’t count as official. But self-publishing a comic with your brand logo, most-likely does.
If you’re building a brand and investing a lot of money you’ll definitely want to look into registering your marks… but if you’re a freelance writer cranking out spec scripts and self publishing, you probably don’t want to be swamped by Trademark fees.
I reckon it’s safe to safe Trademark infringement is more common than copyright infringement, especially in comics.
As I noted, you can’t copyright an idea or name, but you can trademark a name and copyright the execution of an idea. Trademark infringement is often based on what they call “causing confusion in the marketplace.”
So when you try and publish Catman the comic, Catman the exotic dancer doesn’t have much legal footing to win a lawsuit against you (unless your visual marks are similar)… your brands aren’t competing with each other. No one buys your comic to see Catman the exotic dancer fighting crime…
But, though your story is totally different than Marvel’s Felineman, if Marvel feels that people might be confuse your cat-guy with their cat-guy, the cease and desist letters (or other legal action) will start rolling in.
If there are any similarities, and you’re in the same industry, you’ll have to defend the usage of your marks, which may or may not hold water.
Writer’s Guild Script Registration:
Way back when I used to try and save a few bucks registering my work with one of the writer’s guilds. I don’t remember now how much it was, maybe $20 a script?
While it can’t hurt to register in multiple places, the writing guild registrations really don’t hold water.
The writer’s guild registrations expire after only a few years and they really aren’t stand up legal defense in a lawsuit. Don’t cut corners, spend the few bucks extra and register with the gooberment.
Poor Man’s Copyright:
The idea of putting your script in an envelope, mailing it to yourself and not opening it, is called “The Poor Man’s Copyright.” The Poor Man’s copyright WORKS, in that you can successfully mail yourself a letter… Unfortunately, it does nothing for you in court.
Here’s the bottom-line, when you get an official postal stamp on your envelope once it goes through the mail, it’s the envelope getting the dated stamp, NOT the actual pages of your script.
Poor Man’s copyright is not legally valid.
In theory, if you had every page of your script legally notarized, that should hold weight in court… but really what’s the cost of that? I reckon it’s gotta be more than at least $35, probably a lot more… plus time involved. Actually, now that I think of it, you could print out every page of your script and fold them into actual envelopes and mail each one of those to yourself. You know what I bet that would work! But the downside of course, if you’ve got a 300 page script, that’s a lot more than $35 in stamps… and a lot of licking envelopes. But hey, for a short single shot script, who knows! 🙂
I tried to cover the basics of copyrighting your writing. If I missed anything, let me know, and I’ll drop an update. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.