Open the front cover of most books and one of the first pages you’ll encounter contains paragraphs that begin something like:
- First published in Great Britain in [year] by [publisher];
- The right of [author name (s)] has been asserted by [him/her/them]…;
- and All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted…
This legal text is effectively saying that the author and publisher, and/or anyone else involved in making the book, have created an original piece of work and that the reader is not permitted to do anything with it other than enjoy the text. The modern copyright system began with the Berne Convention in 1886 and has evolved over the intervening decades, and it’s now something we take for granted.
It was brought to my attention this week that there is a manifesto proposal by the Green Party to shorten copyright terms to a maximum of 14 years, a move that is causing anger among authors. In most cases, the current system guarantees copyright control for the rest of an author’s life, with control transferred to his or her estate for 70 years after death. If the 14-year proposal were already in operation, this would mean anything produced in the 20th century was now in the public domain.
Incidentally, following a change in the law last year, comedians are less likely to be sued successfully if they produce a parody version of an existing work.
With so much at stake, there’s a good reason to make it plain who owns the copyright. To this end, many emerging authors place a large copyright and/or © on their manuscript before sending it to a publisher, or on the cover of the book if it’s self-published.
There is no need to do this for two reasons:
- Making a big show of copyright is the mark of a nonprofessional. A publisher isn’t going to steal your manuscript unless they’re a dodgy outfit, and if you do self-publish a book, a discreet copyright notice inside will suffice. Make sure it’s drafted by a lawyer or someone who knows what they’re doing; don’t make up your own wording.
- In any case, copyright exists the moment a work is created, at least in the UK and in the USA. The purpose of the notice is merely an affirmation of the copyright.
If you have had something published in a book or in a magazine, make sure you’re receiving the appropriate money from it. Register with the Authors’ Lending and Copyright Society to check whether you could be paid secondary royalties from photocopying, scanning and digital copying. If your book is in a library, royalties are generated each time it’s borrowed, so consider joining the Public Lending Right scheme to collect any money owed.