Monday, 18 September 2017

Understanding the Principles of Copyright

By Iola Goulton


What is Copyright?


In essence, copyright is the right to copy. (Sounds obvious, right?)


Copyright includes the right to reproduce, distribute, and display copyrighted works. It is a form of intellectual property, an asset that has monetary value. Copyright law is designed to protect the rights of those who create content.

What Does Copyright Cover?

Copyright covers original works, whether words, sounds, or images, and whether published or unpublished. This includes books and blog posts, but also includes music, lyrics, movies, TV shows, scripts, plays, speeches … it’s broad. Basically, copyright covers the creation of any original work, in any form.

Who Owns the Copyright to a Published Book?

The author (well, they should). The author signs a contract with a publisher which licences specific rights. This licence gives the publisher the temporary right to reproduce, distribute, and display copyrighted works (i.e. to print and sell the book).

A good contract will specify what rights are included, e.g. the format of the book, the language, and the countries the book can be sold. It will also include how the author can get those rights back (e.g. so the author can self-publish the work). Never sign a contract that’s for life of copyright. That basically means the publisher owns the book, not you.

If you want to know more about the ins and outs of publishing contracts, I recommend Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog.

Copyright is Automatic

Copyright is automatic for work first published after 1 March 1989. Works do not have to have a © symbol or notice of copyright to be covered. The law is more complex for earlier work, so it’s best to assume a work is covered by copyright unless you have evidence to the contrary.

Copyright is International

All countries have laws relating to copyright. While there are minor differences (e.g. the length of copyright, whether you need to register copyright), the principles are the same, thanks to the Berne Convention.

There is a legal concept known as the long arm of the law. I thought this a cliché used in Western movies, but it apparently is a real thing. Author and lawyer Courtney Milan says:
you can be prosecuted by a state so long as you have “minimum contacts” with that state.
Milan was talking about online giveaways, not copyright law, but my unlegal interpretation* of long-arm jurisdiction is that anything you publish needs to abide by:

  • The copyright laws where you live.
  • The copyright laws where you publish.
  • The copyright laws where your readers live.

So a blog post (like this one) published on a US-based website (like Blogger) that attracts readers from Australia, New Zealand, and the US needs to comply with US copyright law. And Australian copyright law. And New Zealand copyright law.

Copyright is Universal

Fortunately, most of the principles are universal, thanks to the Berne Convention. Where things differ by country, my suggestion is to abide by the most conservative. So if a work under copyright in country A but not in country B, I suggest you treat the work as if it was still under copyright.

Here are two well-known examples:

  • The King James Bible
  • Peter Pan

The King James Bible

Most American Christians will tell you the King James Bible is out of copyright. However, it is still under copyright in the United Kingdom—copyright is held by the Crown i.e. HM Queen Elizabeth II. King James Bibles are published in the UK by the Crown’s patentee, Cambridge University Press.

So if it’s reasonable to assume your book might be purchased in the UK, it would be appropriate to include the appropriate copyright statement. (Not that I’ve ever heard of the Queen suing anyone for copyright infringement over the King James Bible. But it could happen.)

Note that it’s not the original text of the Bible which is subject to copyright, but the translation. 


So all more modern versions of the Bible, including the New King James Version, are under copyright, because they are translations. Most modern translations allow authors to quote up to a specific number of verses without written permission as long as the follow specific guidelines. You can find up-to-date copyright and permission information by clicking on the relevant version at Bible Gateway.

Peter Pan

JM Barrie gifted the copyright to Peter Pan (the play and the later novelisation) to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in 1929. That copyright originally expired in 1987, but the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 includes a clause that specifically states GOSH has a right to royalty in perpetuity in the UK for stage productions, broadcasting, or publication.

But that doesn’t apply internationally. The novel is considered to be in the public domain in most countries, although the play version is still in copyright in the US until 2023 (so if Hollywood wish to produce a Peter Pan movie, the producers must licence the rights from GOSH).

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is a big deal. It’s against the law in the same way as stealing is against the law. As an awkward object lesson, Abingdon Press have recently pulled a book from sale after finding numerous instances of plagiarism

Plagiarism is quoting other people’s work without appropriate attribution.


Strong for a Moment Like This: The Daily Devotions of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Rev Bill Shillady is a collection of 365 devotions provided to the former First Lady during her presidential campaign. Unfortunately, not all the material was original.

The plagiarism was discovered when CNN published one of the devotionals, and a pastor from Indiana contacted CNN, saying parts of the devotional seemed to be “inspired” by a blog post he published in March 2016. Despite the book having over 200 citations, there was more content that had not been correctly cited. The book was pulled from sale less than a month after publication.

It is estimated that 3,000 copies of Strong have been sold, from a print run of 80,000. The remaining books will be recalled and pulped.

Does This Mean I Can’t Use Copyrighted Material?

You can still use copyrighted material if you have written permission from the copyright holder (note that this may not be the original creator—Paul McCartney doesn’t own the rights to most of the 250+ songs he created with John Lennon).

You can also use copyrighted material without permission in certain specific circumstances, as outlined in the US doctrine of Fair Use.

I’ll be back next week to discuss Fair Use, and give some tips for using copyrighted material without getting into trouble.


Please note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. There is a lot of great information about copyright on the internet, but none of it is legal advice. To get legal advice, you pay a lawyer licensed to practice in your state or country. 


About Iola Goulton


I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction. Visit my website at www.christianediting.co.nzto download a comprehensive list of publishers of Christian fiction. 

I also write contemporary Christian romance with a Kiwi twist—find out more at www.iolagoulton.com.

You can also find me on:
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2 comments:

  1. Hi, Iola! I thought I followed your blog before. Well, now I really am. Great information here. I've shared it online. Thanks so much. All the best to you!

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Victoria. I blog here, at International Christian Fiction Writers, and at my own website - Christian Editing Services (which is probably where you thought you were following me!)

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