Freelance Writers and Copyrights – What You Need To Know – Part 1

copyright for writers

Yesterday I answered a question, My Article Was Stolen – What Should I Do? – Ask Anne at and it got me thinking again about copyright law.

Of course, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t even play one on TV; this is my understanding of copyright law as it applies to freelance writers in the United States. (More about overseas copyrights later.)

When you’re writing for yourself, you have an automatic copyright on the work even if you don’t file for copyright protection. That protection is based on the idea that as the creator of a work you deserve ownership and any financial benefit that may come out of that ownership.

When you write for someone else, who owns the copyright should be spelled out before you even begin the work. In many cases the publishers claim the copyright – sometimes you can negotiate this and it’s always safe to ask. Assuming the publisher owns the copyright, they stand to benefit financially – ideally you’ll have been paid enough to make giving up the copyright worthwhile. (It’s probably worth noting that images – photos, drawings, graphics, etc. are also usually copyrighted – meaning don’t use them without permission.)

Is it worth a copyright?

Many writers have an almost knee-jerk reaction of “NO!” when they discover a publisher wants to retain the copyright. My suggestion is you take a deep breath and consider what you’ve written or plan to write and decide if this is a battle worth fighting.

For example, if you’re doing a series or even a single 300 word blog post on last night’s television show or about an company that makes widgets, there’s probably not much point in trying to insist on retaining the copyright. It’s easy for you to write, and it’s not a topic you’re likely to want to use again, at least in that form.

On the other hand, you may very well want to negotiate the copyright for a book or other significant piece of writing.

In other words, pick your battles carefully.

Neither ideas nor titles can be copyrighted

It’s not possible to copyright an idea – just the expression of that idea. That’s why it’s totally okay for you to write about raising feral kittens and for me to write about the same topic – both of us can protect what we write on the same subject, but not the idea itself.

Titles can’t be copyrighted either. Yesterday I looked up a book title, Blink, at my library and found maybe a dozen books with similar titles. I had to sort through them to find the one I wanted.  In this case, the subtitle, The power of thinking without thinking  was my clue. It’s written by Malcolm Gladwell and I’m enjoying learning about how we often make decisions.

Filing for a copyright may make suing easier

Although, in the US, you have a copyright as soon as you begin to write, using the copyright symbol (© ) and or actually filing for a copyright may make it easier for you to sue if someone steals your work. Of course, there’s the whole cost of lawsuits issue, but if you want you can file online at There’s a fee involved.

If you look at the bottom of this page on the right you’ll see a copyright symbol.

Then there’s the whole issue of what your clients may know or think they know about copyright. Next week I’ll talk about that and maybe work in some information about international copyrights. (Hint, there is no such thing, but there are some guidelines.)

By the way, the cc symbol on the graphic indicates this graphic is licensed through a Creative Commons license. Although this doesn’t have much if any legal standing at the moment I suspect it’s the direction we should be heading.

What’s your experience with copyrights? Let us know in comments or inside the forum if you’re a member.

Write well and often,

Anne Wayman



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