Copyright Caveats

Let’s take a quick quiz on copyrights.

Question 1

You write a rhyming recipe book, indicate your copyright with ©, and register it with the Copyright Office. Someone then clearly takes some of your recipes and puts them in their own recipe book.

Has your copyright been infringed?


No. Copyrights, and patents and trademarks, for that matter, don’t protect ideas. In fact, there’s not a law in the country that protects ideas – only discoveries, techniques, and in the case of copyrights, artistic expressions. Your Avocado Meringue recipe has no legal protection as an idea. Assuming that the person who took your ideas didn’t also put them in a rhyming book, the format is now different, so they have not copied your expression. You have no case. It would be a different matter if they copied a whole collection or also copied your explanatory notes.

Question 2

You write a poem, and tuck it away. You don’t put © on it, and you don’t register it, you don’t even need to publish it. A year later, somehow your exact poem is published in a poetry book under someone else’s name.

Has your copyright been infringed?


Yes. Copyright protection exists the moment the moment you write your poem, song, story, etc. You don’t need to register it, you don’t need to put ©, you don’t need to do anything. So sending it to yourself in a sealed envelope (aka “Poor Man’s Copyright”) also doesn’t do much good.

The bottom line is that you’re covered for your artistic expression the very second you create something, and you don’t have to do anything at all. Copyrights registered after 1978 last for the author’s lifetime plus seventy years.  Not bad for something that’s free, immediate, and for which you don’t have to do anything.

Fair Use

“Fair Use” is an interesting copyright concept. As a kind of exception to copyright, others have the legally defensible position of using parts of your copyright, with these factors considered:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
2. The nature of the copyrighted work
3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

Thus if you’re using a small part of a copyright for an educational or parody usage, and you haven’t damaged the financial standing of the original copyright, you should be ok.

Here’s an amazing example of fair use. It’s a compilation taken from various animated Disney movies of the characters themselves voicing a script about fair use. Disney was a great choice because of their notoriously extraordinarily aggressive prosecution of intellectual property infringement,and their role in actually changing the copyright law to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain.

Summing Up

Registering your copyright ( is still a good idea, though, as you can claim statutory damages and legal fees in a lawsuit. Of course you also have clear evidence of your creation and the date. The best news about registering copyrights is that it’s easy and only costs $35.

So go ahead and slap © on anything you want, and register the really important stuff.

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