Artists in general, and new writers in particular, spend a lot of time worrying about protecting their copyright. And a lot of that worry is unnecessary.
When I was finishing up my first novel, back when I was still in high school, somebody once advised me that to establish my copyright I should mail a copy of my manuscript to myself as a registered letter—and then never open it again. That way, if proof was ever needed that the book was mine, I could point to that unopened, timestamped piece of mail and say, “Aha! I wrote that in March 1985, and this plagiarized copy was published in October 1987!”
That’s a popular bit of folk wisdom that’s been passed down through the artistic community over the years. It’s still circulating out there, and I hear it come up from time to time.
The truth is, as with most folk wisdom, although there’s a kernel of truth behind it, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Another preventative measure new writers often take is to avoid talking about their work at all with other writers. Perhaps you see other emerging writers as competition, as potential thieves ready to get their grubby little hands over your precious work of art.
Honestly, this worry is misplaced. All those other writers are probably thinking the same thing. Chances are they have enough good ideas in their head to keep them busy for a lifetime or two (or three), so they’re not on the prowl looking to take advantage of you.
What is copyright, though? How is it defined? Put very simply, it means you have the exclusive right to produce or reproduce a work, or a substantial part of that work, in any form. It protects written work, of course, like books. It protects music recordings and song lyrics (this one gets complicated). It protects dramatic works, like movies and plays, including their scripts. It protects paintings, drawings, photographs, etc. It even protects live performances, such as at a concert, festival, book reading, or poetry recitation. It even protects bits of performances that are entirely improvised, never before written down or planned.
It includes a lot.
And how long does it last? In Canada, your entire lifetime, and the next fifty years after that. Some exceptions exist, and it may be possible to extend the life of the copyright if your future descendants one day decide they need more time.
Anyway, I come bearing glad tidings of great joy: copyright in Canada is automatic. You don’t necessarily have to send yourself that registered letter, and you don’t have to apply for anything to get your copyright started. You don’t even need to write “© Copyright Your Name” on the first page of your novel. Your protection is totally, completely automatic. The moment you write something down, it’s copyrighted.
This blog post? Every word, as I type it, is protected as mine. The email I lovingly crafted this morning to my friend who’s on vacation in Florida? That’s protected, too. It’s mine. Hands off.
The kernel of truth about that registered letter story is that in the extremely unlikely event that your writing is plagiarized or otherwise used by someone without your permission, or for financial gain, you may need to prove one day in court that you wrote it first. In this day and age, that isn’t too hard to do. Just about everything you do on your computer is going to have an associated timestamp, and your phones know exactly when you do something, where, and how long it takes you. In fact, the amount of information our technology reveals about us is really creepy.
But that’s not the point of today’s post! The point is just that, in a copyright case, all that mountain of data is most likely going to work in your favour.
However, some people want to have some kind of tangible proof in their hands, if for no other reason than to give them a bit of extra peace of mind. In that case, your best bet is to register your work with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. When you register a copyright with them, they’ll will send you a certificate that could be used in court one day.
That said, it’s important to note that the Canadian Intellectual Property Office won’t police your copyright or check on whether your work is being used by someone else, and having the certificate doesn’t mean your copyright will never be questioned. So the value of registering your copyright is limited.
The best defence is to educate yourself. Hopefully this post has helped with that, but I’m no lawyer of course. If you have specific questions about a project you’re involved in, you may wish to consult an intellectual property lawyer. If your questions are more generalized, there’s a good chance you’ll find the answers at Canadian Intellectual Property Office website I linked to above.
But like I said, intellectual property theft is unlikely. Vanishingly so.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.