Extra Credit: How to Protect Your Original Work

The well-known poem “Footprints in the Sand” is printed on coffee mugs, paper weights, greeting cards, posters, and many other items usually sold at Christian bookstores. But who wrote it?

It is most often attributed to “anonymous,” but several people have stepped forth to claim the rights to that poem, saying that they are the actual authors. No doubt, someone wrote it, although that particular person may or may not be in the current crop of claimants.

Among the others who did not actually write the poem, there might be a few who really, truly believe they actually wrote the poem. Perhaps they have seen it so much that they internalized it, and then they thought that this internalized poem was actually something coming from their own creative enterprises.

Then, there might be some people who did indeed write a similar poem (but not exactly like the one printed on coffee mugs), because, let's face it, the idea of Jesus’ footprints is not very original. For starters, I found a hymn written in 1871by Mary B.C. Slade called “Footsteps of Jesus,” among other examples.

And, there is always the possibility, perhaps the probability, that one or more of the current crop of claimants knows, deep down, that he/she is not the true author, but is willing to campaign for the rights to the poem because there are dollar signs visible where the word “anonymou$” is printed.

Whatever the case, all of this could have been easily avoided if the original author would have filed for a copyright on the poem very soon after it was written, before it was distributed to anybody else.

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, you hold the copyright to every original piece of writing, art, music, etc. you create, from the very first moment it was put into some tangible form, either directly, or through the aid of a computer or device.

But, how do you prove that you created a work? The only way to officially prove you created a work is to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. Let me repeat myself: that is the only official way to prove you wrote or created a piece.

There is something called a “poor man’s copyright” where a person seals a work or a photo of a work in an envelope and mails it to himself/herself. The postmark will provide an official date, and if the envelope remains sealed, this could be proof that the work was created by a certain person sometime before the date on the postmark. This is not a great way to copyright your work because it could easily be faked (envelopes can be steamed open and resealed), and, as far as I know, it has never held up in a court of law.

Another way to try to secure a copyright is to get the document/photo date-time stamped. If you got it date and time stamped several different times by obviously different machines in, say a 24 hour period, or in, say a week’s time, it might hold some authority (notice the word “might.”)

Also, you could get a work dated and notarized by a notary public, although they will only do this for certain types of document.

Or, you could take a photograph or video of your work next to a recognizable dated item, such as a television broadcast of, say an election (Decision ’08), or a disaster (9/11/01), or, a personality who is going off the air for good. These possibilities might not hold much water in a court of law because you could easily fake those as well. How many news programs have re-hashed 9/11/01 each year? How many channels show reruns in syndication? Many times you can find clips from years ago on YouTube as well, and I am sure judges are aware of that fact.

These methods can be just as costly (or possibly more costly, with the price of gas rising) than simply sending your work in to be registered by the U.S. Copyright Office. They are also quite complex, while the official copyright process is fairly simple.

Perhaps you don’t want to register your copyright because you feel that your work is “God’s property,” and you don’t want to profit from it anyway. That’s fine if it’s your decision or philosophy, but by registering a copyright, you can still make those decisions while also preventing anyone else from profiting by claiming authorship/ownership of your work.

I was once enrolled in a poetry class, and in casual conversation, I dropped a line that made me think for a minute. “That would be a good line for a poem,” I mused to my friends who were talking with me. One of those people was also enrolled in the same poetry class, and when she produced a poem with my line in it, I was blue with anger. How could she? It was my line! I invented it! To make matters worse, the poem she wrote with my line in it earned her an A grade, and she was praised for her inventiveness.

Both she and I knew that that particular line was mine, but I had no way to prove it, since I had not written it down, had not trumped her and turned in a poem with the line first, and had not taken steps to protect my intellectual property. It wasn't actually copyrighted until it was put into a tangible form, so just saying it casually in conversation made it "mine," but not "protected."

It is important to take steps to protect your intellectual property, especially when posting it electronically. Think about the problems you would have proving something (say a poem or a picture) you posted on the web is actually your property and you hold the copyright to it.

1. Screen names are easy to come by and easy to change. Yes, someone could, right now, be using your actual name as a screen name on some service, and that is permissible. That’s not usually a problem, but if a screen name were the only proof of ownership you had, it probably wouldn’t hold up in court, and that would be especially true for screen names that aren’t real names, like “Angelfire” or “PhilliesFan.”

2. Internet service providers might hold records to prove that you (or the person to whom such and such credit card was issued) do indeed hold that e-mail address account, but there is no guarantee that any ISP will still be in business in five or ten years, so those records might not be available when or if you need them.

3. People can post any e-mail address, even a fake one, as a return address on a post.

4. Once something is posted on the web, it has the potential to be passed from this person to that person, sent in spam, and distributed to thousands of people worldwide in just a few minutes. That probably won’t happen, statistically, to your piece, but it does give one pause that at any given time, even months or years after it is first posted, someone can “discover” a poem or a photograph of a piece of art and distribute it to 10,000 of his or her closest friends.

5. Many people don’t understand (or simply don’t care) that copying and pasting something they found on a website can be a form of plagiarism. Go to Yahoo Answers and look at how many people paste an answer they actually got from a Google search, and don’t attribute its source (passing it off as their own). Also, go to Snopes and see how many poems and stories are passed around the country and world through e-mail but are actually attributed to the wrong person. You could be the victim of ignorance on the part of someone who “discovered” your piece and copied and pasted it, implying it is his/her own work.

These things should make you pause before you post. Is the copyright registered? Can you prove it is your work? Would your proof hold up in court if need be?

Any time you post something original on the web, you should identify yourself as the copyright holder (whether or not you have registered with the U.S. Copyright Office). Legally, you hold the copyright as soon as you put your work into tangible form. You can help to protect yourself by putting: (c) + your legal or professional name, and the date or year it was originally created. For example, the copyright notice for this article is:

(c) Christie Jenkins, December, 2008.

The c with the parentheses is an online adaptation of the c with the circle (the official copyright symbol) found on most hard copies of published works. If you are making a hard copy instead of posting it online, take the time to find the official copyright symbol in your font. If you are posting an image file, a photograph or a scan, you should post the copyright notice as a watermark on the picture. This can be done in anything from Photoshop to Windows Paint.

Although I urge you to consider officially registering your work with the U.S. Copyright office, you can put the copyright symbol on any original work you created, even if it is not officially registered.

At Artists Work B.e.n.c.h., we encourage you to post your work for the good of the “community.” What good is art if no one sees it? What good is a story if no one reads it? But, please read this article thoroughly and consider the implications of posting work that does not have a registered copyright.

It costs $35 for online applications for copyrights, and $45 for paper applications. To stretch your money farther, it is possible to register collections of works, such as a whole album of songs, a collection of short stories, or a collection of photos as long as the items are united under a single title. In the past, the U.S. Copyright office had many different forms depending on the type of work you were copyrighting. They have streamlined the process now so that all copyrights except for group copyrights are done on form CO (or eCO for electronic filing). If you file by paper application, you can expect a certificate within approximately eight months of filing. If you file electronically, the process is quicker than that. For more information, go to the U.S. Copyright office's website at http://www.copyright.gov/.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've gone through the copyright process a few times for songs I wrote. It's not hard.