The Basics of Copyright Law

When I began Present Poetry in September of 2022, I planned to read poetry from authors in the public domain. However, I couldn’t find authors in the public domain without researching copyright law. 

Here’s a basic rundown of what I found. 

What is A Copyright?

A copyright is the protection of an original piece of work. It first appeared in 1790 and gave Congress the power to “Promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution).

However, they modeled the law after the Statute of Anne, which was Great Britain’s version that went into effect some 80 years before.

What Does a Copyright Protect?

It protects any form of original work with five key elements:

  • Reproduction
  • Adaptation
  • Distribution 
  • Performance 
  • Display 

Reproduction is the right to create your work. No one else can claim it or reproduce it (without permission), and it’s 100% yours to create as you wish. You can also make as many copies as you wish- which is helpful if you’re trying to sell. 

Adaptation is the right to adapt or modify the work as needed. For example, you can update the text or image, change some facts, abridge it, translate it, or adapt it to other forms of media- and it’s all protected by copyright law. 

Distribution is the right to make the first sale of your work. You worked hard for your accomplishments, so the first sale should be yours. Anyone else trying to sell your work is illegal, and you can press charges.

Performance is the right to act, sing, play, dance, or otherwise perform your original work in a public space. Public readings, play adaptations, and even film and movie contracts are also under this protection, so spread the word and get your work out there!

Display is the right to show your work! It can be on a blog, on film, in a picture, or on a table. Whichever way you want to display your published work, do so with pride! The law allows it. 

What Doesn’t a Copyright Cover?

Copyright covers many things, but it will NOT protect:

  • Facts (the sky is blue)
  • Tropes (the “chosen one” who defeats an evil)
  • Ideas (vampires in Louisiana)
  • Names (John Wick, Crowley, Hermione, etc.)
  • Short Phrases (Hasta La Vista, baby!)
  • Slogans (Have it Your Way)
  • Raw data (test results, stats, etc.)

These are the top categories that copyright doesn’t cover. However, it’s not a complete list, and you can check out this great article by Helen Sedwick for more information. 

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

Copyright begins when you fix your work into a tangible expression that can be “perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated” and will last for the author’s life, plus an additional 70 years after their death- but only if you published on or after January 1978.

I think most of us are safe on that point. 

However, if someone published a work between 1978 and 1989 and didn’t renew the copyright in time, it belongs to the public domain. 

What is Public Domain?

As the name suggests, Public Domain contains the works that belong to the public. You don’t need permission to use or reproduce them, and they have no copyright, trademark, or other protections assigned to them. 

All works published before 1928 are in the public domain, as well as those published between 1978 and 1989 that didn’t get their copyright renewed.

Project Gutenberg is one of my favorite sources for public domain literature, or you can check the Copyright Records to see what’s available. 

Copyright law may seem complicated, but as long as you know the basics, you can keep yourself (and your work) safe from harm. To learn more about copyright law, check out the websites below and use the information responsibly! 

What Writers Should Know about Copyright

What Writers Need to Know About Copyright Law

The Public Domain

3 thoughts on “The Basics of Copyright Law

  1. I appreciate the effort and research put into this article on copyright law. It’s crucial for anyone creating original work to understand the basics of copyright and how to protect their work. The breakdown of the five key elements that a copyright protects, and what it does not protect, was helpful and informative. It’s also great to know that works published before 1928 and those published between 1978 and 1989 that didn’t get their copyright renewed are in the public domain. The resources provided at the end of the article are also a great way to learn more about copyright law. Thank you for sharing this valuable information with your readers. 👍👏👌😊

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