Five Top Copyright Myths, Busted to Pieces

If you’re a writer, you need to know your copyrights — and your copyright myths.

Copyright myths are surprisingly abundant, even among writers, publishers, and other wordsmiths. They tend to be based either on out-of-date facts, or simple confusion with somewhat different concepts. In this article, we’ll take a close look at five myths about the magical copyright, and reveal the truth about each.

Myth 1: Copyrights last forever.

Sadly, this isn’t the case, although the copyright period is rather long under current law. Past laws weren’t so stringent, but these days protection for bylined works now lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, which can be a very long time indeed. This applies for any work created after January 1, 1978.

This copyright myth is even untrue for anonymous and pseudonymous works, which are good for either 95 years after the first publication of the work or 120 years after its creation, whichever expires first. Anything published before 1978 is copyrighted under different rules, which can be found here.

Myth 2: My U.S. copyright will protect me all over the world.

If this were true, people wouldn’t be selling Harry Potter knockoffs to great effect in China. In fact, copyrights (and other intellectual property laws) are often ignored entirely in third world and Asian countries, where it’s difficult for the long arm of international law to reach (or at least to be effective when it does).

Myth 3: I have to register with the U.S. Copyright Office before my copyright is valid.

Pure copyright myth. As the law now stands, anything you write down is immediately copyrighted, whether it includes a copyright notice or not — and in some literary circles, copyright notices are deliberately left off submitted manuscripts, since some editors find them offensive.

If your manuscript happens to be blindingly brilliant and you suspect someone might try to steal it, you can have it formally copyrighted by the Copyright Office for less than $20. But you could just as easily have it notarized. All you have to do is prove you wrote it before someone else published it as their own.

Myth 4: If a work is posted on the Internet, it’s public domain.

And if you believe that little copyright myth, there’s this sweet little plot of land in the Everglades we have for sale… Seriously, information may or may not want to be free, but if someone else wrote something, you have to get their explicit written permission in order to legally post it.

Certainly there’s such a thing as fair use, but it can be hard to define. Frankly, the body of case law regarding what constitutes fair use is dicey, so if you’re not certain about whether it’s acceptable to publish something, even with attribution, you should err on the side of caution.

Myth 5: You can copyright a name or an idea.

No, you can’t — names, titles, and ideas can’t be copyrighted. This particular copyright myth derives from confusion with the concept of the trademark, which does allow you to lay legal claim to a name — as long as you’re willing to vigorously defend that claim in court and in print.