To help writers who haven’t yet published a book and feel a bit overwhelmed with all the legal terms in publishing contracts, we decided to blog about some of the legal aspects of writing.

What is copyright?

Copyright law protects an author’s ownership of a creative work. You can’t copyright an idea, though, just its expression “in tangible form,” e.g., written on paper or on the computer.

The author of a novel or short story has a bundle of rights, including the exclusive right of:

  • Reproduction: Produce copies of the novel
  • Distribution: Distribute and sell the novel
  • Adaption: Create derivative works (e.g., translate the book or make it into a movie)
  • Performance: Recite or perform the work in public
  • Display: show the work to the public.

How long does the copyright last?

In the US and the states of the European Union, works published after 1977 are protected until 70 years after the author’s death.

How do I get copyright protection for my novel?

In countries to which the Berne Convention applies (e.g., the US, the UK, Australia, Germany), copyright protection is automatic. You don’t need to register your copyright with any government office, but registration can still be helpful in case of suits for copyright infringement.

Do I sell my copyright when I sign a contract with a publisher?

In publishing, it’s not common to sell the copyright. If you publish your book with a publisher, you keep the copyright (ownership of the book), but you license the publisher to carry out some of those rights for you, e.g., produce, distribute, and sell your novel for you. The contract needs to specify which rights you grant to the publisher.

Let us know if you have any questions about copyright or want us to explain other aspects of publishing contracts.

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About the Author : Astrid Ohletz

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