Copyright Basics

Excerpted with the permission of the author from Self-Publishing Legal Handbook: Second Edition by Helen Sedwick, published by Ten Gallon Press (ISBN 9780988302198). This is an excellent resource and recommended for all publishers.

The author owns the copyright to their work as soon as they put an original creation into a fixed format whether on paper, on a digital device, or as a recording. The first draft with all typos and errors is protected by copyright law whether it’s published or not. Many people still assume you must publish a copyright mark© or register the copyright for it to be valid. That used to be the case until 1977. Since then copyright ownership doesn’t have this requirement. It’s automatic.

Even though an author doesn’t have to include a copyright mark© on the copyright page (which is always behind the title page of the book), it’s a good idea to do so in case the author ever has to file a legal case of infringement. Copyright is usually in the name of the author or their publishing imprint.

Registering with the US Copyright Office is an optional step. If the author chooses to register, they should ideally do so within 3 months of publication at You can also register web and blog content. Officially registering copyright can take up to a year to complete, but the publication of the work can move forward during the processing time.

Copyright in the US lasts for the life of the author + 70 years. If there are multiple authors, it lasts for the life of the last surviving author + 70 years. Copyright passes to the heirs like any other property. If the author is a corporation or other entity, copyright lasts for 95 years from first publication.

 What’s not protected by copyright (US)?

  • book titles
  • character names
  • short phrases
  • ideas

A title associated with a series of books like “Dummies Guides” may be protected through a separate trademark application.

Works in the public domain (US) due to copyright expiration are:

  • Any work first published before 1923
  • Any unpublished work created before 1895
  • Any unpublished work created by someone who died before 1945
  • Work created by employees of the US Federal Government in their line of work are almost always in the public domain

 Note that there is no such thing as international copyright, however, most developed countries provide reciprocal recognition of copyright.


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