Copyright 101 For Indie Authors

Saul Bottcher & Nas Hedron,—Updated 2 July 2013

Note: This article is provided as general information and is not intended as legal advice. If you have questions about your individual legal situation, please consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept that exists in most countries.

Copyright gives the creator of an original creative work exclusive rights, including economic rights, which give the creator a special ability to profit from the work, as well as moral rights, which protect the authorship and integrity of the work.

Copyright laws are implemented separately in each country. However, 165 countries have now signed the Berne Convention, an international agreement which standardizes some aspects of copyright, sets minimum standards for the copyright laws of signing countries, and requires all signing countries to recognize the copyright of the works of authors in other signing countries.

What are Economic Rights?

The economic rights which copyright gives to the creator of a work include:

Each of these rights gives the creator a way to profit from their work, either by exploiting the granted monopoly directly, or by licensing one or more rights to another party in exchange for a licensing fee or other consideration.

What are Moral Rights?

The moral rights which copyright gives to the creator of a work include:

(The right to attribution could also be seen as an economic right, as it allows the creator to accumulate a reputation that becomes an asset they can use in future ventures.)

In theory, all Berne Convention countries must recognize moral rights. However, moral rights are more strongly protected in some countries than in others. (For example, the U.S.A. and Canada allow creators to waive their moral rights, whereas France does not. The ways in which moral rights are enforced also vary by country.)

How is Copyright Obtained?

The initial copyright to a work is automatically assigned to the author at the moment the work is created in a tangible form. The work is then said to be copyrighted. (There is no such thing as “copyrighting” a work, since the copyright exists from the moment the work exists.)

Subsequently, the economic rights can be licensed or assigned to other parties through legal contracts. However, the moral rights remain with the author.

In some cases, a pre-existing contract can cause the copyright to be assigned to the creator’s employer. The work is known as a work for hire. Work-for-hire clauses are frequently seen in employment contracts, and are used to ensure that the company owns any creative works the employee develops in the course of doing their job.

To learn more about work-for-hire and protecting your copyright, read our article How to Protect Your Copyright.

What Can be Copyrighted?

Copyright applies to original creative works. In the context of writing, this means fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, of any length.

The complete list varies by country, but it typically includes written works (literature, poems, theses, plays), visual art (paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs), music and related works (music composition, sound recordings, and choreography), design (graphic design, architecture, and industrial design), radio and TV broadcasts, and computer software.

What Can’t be Copyrighted?

Copyright only applies to the creative work itself, not to abstract ideas contained in the work.

In the context of writing, the copyright applies to the text—the specific set of words in a particular order.

Copyright does not apply to ideas contained within the text, such as the premise, the broad strokes of the plot, character names and characteristics, the setting, and so forth.

How Long Does Copyright Last?

Under the Berne Convention, all works are copyrighted for a minimum of 50 years after the death of the author (excluding film and photographs). If a work is published anonymously or posthumously, different terms apply.

Individual countries may provide for longer terms. This table lists the duration of copyright in countries with large English-speaking populations. Each country has its own wrinkles and exceptions, some of which are noted below.

AustraliaLife + 70 years
CanadaLife + 50 yearsfor anonymous works: publication+50 or creation+75, whichever is shorter
IrelandLife + 70 years
JamaicaLife + 50 years
New ZealandLife + 50 years
PhilippinesLife + 50 years
SingaporeLife + 70 yearsfor posthumous works: publication+70
South AfricaLife + 50 years
U.K.Life + 70 years
U.S.A.Life + 70 yearsapplies to works published since 1978 and to unpublished works

(For a complete list, see

What is the Purpose of Registering Copyright?

Some countries maintain a central registry of copyrighted works. Registering a creative work in these countries can provide additional benefits:

Under the Berne Convention, registration cannot be required to obtain copyright. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created in a tangible form.

To learn more about protecting your copyright, read our article How to Protect Your Copyright.

How Can I Register my Copyright?

Depending on the country, there are three ways of registering copyright:

The following table lists the copyright registration procedure for countries with large English-speaking populations. Where available, links are provided for an online national registry. Otherwise, the appropriate registration procedure is noted.

CountryTypeRegistration procedure
AustraliaNoneKeep dated drafts, plans, and records to build a body of evidence that you are the creator of the work. (fee 50 CAD)
IrelandNoneDeposit a copy of the work with a bank or solicitor with the date and time of deposit recorded or notarized, or mail a copy of the work to yourself through registered post and leave it unopened.
JamaicaGovernment*Until implementation is complete, mail a copy of the work to yourself through registered post and leave it unopened.
New ZealandNon‑GovernmentRegistration with private bodies, such as the New Zealand Writer’s Guild, recommended as a method of proving authorship. (fee P200)
SingaporeNoneDeposit a copy of the work with a lawyer or in a depository, or mail a copy to yourself and leave it unopened. Additional evidence may be required to prove authorship.
South AfricaNone**No specific procedure recommended.
U.K.Non‑GovernmentThird-party copyright registers may be used, or mail a copy to yourself by Special Delivery post and leave the envelope unopened. (fee 35 USD)

*As of the writing of this article, Jamaica’s national registry is under development.
**South Africa has a national registry for film/video works, but not for other copyrightable works.

Keep in mind that even where registration exists, the benefits of registration vary from country to country. You may wish to research your country’s laws before you make a decision about registration.

To learn about other ways to protect your copyright, read our article How to Protect Your Copyright.

What is the Purpose of a Copyright Notice?

Copyright notices, which usually take the form ©(Year) (Author’s Name), serve two purposes:

Under the Berne Convention, copyright notices are not required to obtain or preserve copyright.

To learn more about protecting your copyright, read our article How to Protect Your Copyright.

How Do ISBNs Affect Copyright?

The ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is a number used to index books. It has no effect on copyright whatsoever. (For more information on ISBNs, see ISBNs and E-Publishing.)

Where Can I Learn More?

This article is merely an introduction to a complex subject. To learn more, try reading:

Do you have a general question about copyright?
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