Copyright – A Basic Introduction

The person examines copyright sign


In 2011, in the early days of Sisterhood of the Traveling Book, I came across the award winning book, The Trust, written by attorney, Sean Keefer. Because the book looked fantastic and I felt it would fit in with our reviewers,  I immediately contacted Sean to become an author member and have not been disappointed. I absolutely loved the book and Sean has stayed in the front of my mind waiting for his next book to come out.

With the recent uproar regarding threatening of lawsuits for negative reviews, I reached out to Sean to explain Copyright Law and Fair Use, specifically as it relates to book reviews.  His immediate response was that it would take more than one post, so I gave him the forum to teach authors about this important topic.

Please note that this series is on  Copyright Law and Fair Use in the United States. Please refer to an intellectual attorney in you live outside the US and have questions on this important topic.

seanPeople think that as a lawyer who is also an author I frequently provide counsel on the issue of copyright. Actually that is not always the case. Usually I have people who are not attorneys provide me their belief about copyright. Unfortunately, what I hear is generally incorrect.

Below I will cover a few of the basics about copyright to help folks better understand this area of the law. As you read, keep in mind that I am in no way being exhaustive on the topic. In fact, I am only scratching the surface. If you have questions about something specific, consult an attorney licensed to practice in the jurisdiction where you live—preferably one who regularly practices in the area of intellectual property.

So how does one copyright a work? To obtain a copyright a few requirements must be met.   Fortunately, they are pretty straightforward.

First, the work must be original—and by original I mean completely original. Remember, you are copyrighting the entire work, not a plot, character, theme, cover photo, or type font. Rather, the copyright covers the whole work as a complete unit from cover to cover.

It is not unusual for there to be works with similar story lines, characters, plots, pacing, literary techniques, and the like, but those similarities alone will not in and of themselves violate a copyright. If that were the case, think of all the problems writers of vampire and werewolf books would have. The easiest and most straightforward way to gain an understanding about what can be the subject of a copyright is to use the idea of time travel. You could copyright a book about time travel, but not the theory of time travel. In short, you can’t copyright an idea or theory.

Copyright sign composed of colorful striplines isolated on white

So how does one obtain the copyright for their complete original work of fiction or non-fiction? Simple: finish it. Current law establishes that once a literary work is complete, the copyright attaches. There are also steps that can be pursued to strengthen this. For example, you can pursue registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, where additional rights may be available to the holder of the copyright. With this having been completed one could potentially: seek fees from someone who infringes on a copyright, seek other damages, seek injunctions (a judicial order causing the infringement to stop), or other relief.

It is important to realize that the concept of copyright is designed to put people on notice as to the specific copyright. This means that if someone has something they want to copyright or use, then they have the duty to consult the copyright office to see if a copyright exists. If a copyright is registered, then the protection becomes stronger. It is also important to keep in mind that the copyright process is not enforced by “copyright police.” If a copyright is violated, the holder must seek relief on his or her own. On this note, it is important to understand that the cost of enforcing a copyright can be substantial. Few attorneys practice intellectual property law, and many charge handsomely for their services.

In short, if there is an alleged infringement of a copyrighted work, usually the holder of the copyright will put the other party on notice that the copyright exists and that the unauthorized or impermissible use immediately must cease and desist. If this does not work, then a lawsuit may be required that seeks either an injunction or damages (the recovery of lost profits or income resulting from the infringement).

However, it is also important to realize that just because someone holds a copyright does not mean that there can be no use of his or her work. For example, academic, research-related, and other similar uses are usually allowed. This is called “fair use” and is allowed under current copyright law. It is acceptable to have a book or work quoted or discussed in a review.   It is also not a requirement that a book be published for copyright to be enforced and for restrictions on use to apply.

In summary, copyright comes into existence when your work is completed. Registering a copyright can increase its strength.   Authors should check with their publishers to determine the extent of their copyright on their works. If an alleged infringement of a copyright occurs, follow up with an attorney who has experience in the area of copyright. Do this quickly so as to minimize any damage that may occur.

Next time I’ll discuss the issue of reviews and how you deal with, from a legal stance, negative reviews and those less-than-legitimate reviewers out there.

Important Links:

United States Copyright Office:


5 Stars from A Book and A Review

Sean Keefer Links:

Twitter: @thetrustnovel (





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  1. Amanda Frank says:

    This is some great and very useful information, especially for self publishers, or those kicking around the idea of self publishing! There’s a book by Helen Sedwick called “Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook”. Like this article, it’s a great resource for helping self publish the right way! Thank you for this!

  2. Amanda Frank says:

    Hi! Realized that I might have forgotten to include the link to her website. Definitely worth checking out, !

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