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How to Copyright a Book in the U.S. (Written by a Lawyer)

This article was written by an intellectual property lawyer because a subject of this magnitude needs to be covered by a professional in the field.  But don't worry, it was written for authors.

Can someone steal your book? Are you actually covered or protected by just publishing it? These are important questions for any author because there are a lot of misconceptions around what constitutes copyrighting a book.

Some authors just leave it to chance, while others go beyond what's necessary and incur extra fees and headaches.

So, what is the right answer?  What should authors do to protect their books without going overboard?

In this article, I’m not only going to simplify the complex world of book copyrighting, I'll also show you the most effective means of protecting your work and ensuring you’re covered.

In this article you will learn:

  • What is a book copyright
  • How to legitimately copyright a book
  • Key elements of a copyright page
  • Copyright examples for both fiction and nonfiction
  • Answers to frequently asked questions about book copyrights

Although this is written by an IP lawyer, the information presented here should not be considered formal legal advice, and, in case of an issue, it's recommended that you seek a lawyer for formal representation.

Also, this article is focused on the United States. For information about copyrights in other countries, see the links below. These links are provided as further reading, not advice. We are not experts in international copyright law.

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How to Copyright a Book

Just by publishing a book, you haven't established full copyright. You're partially there. In order to have legally compliant and full copyright, you need to perform three main steps.

3 Steps for Copyrighting a Book

  1. Creating Copyright Rights
  2. Registering a Claim
  3. Providing a Copyright Notice

Creating Copyright Rights

The first step is easy (well, apart from the hard work you put into writing your book). You'll be happy to know that copyright rights for your book are created automatically as you write it. That's right, automatically. When your writing becomes “fixed in a tangible medium,” which is copyright legal jargon meaning written down–on paper, in a computer, on papyrus, or any other fixed form–you, as the author, have created the copyright rights to your work.

It's nice to have something in our legal system that functions automatically and without cost. Enjoy this for a minute because next, we move on to the second step which isn't automatic and does have a cost. This is where the government returns to normal government ways with a process and a fee, but don't worry, the process is doable, and the fee won't break the bank.

Registering a Claim

To register the copyright for your work, you will need to do the following:

  1. Go to the Electronic Copyright Office (or eCO) website.
  2. Login if you already have an account, or register a new account
  3. On the left side under “Register a Work” click “Standard Application”
  4. Click “Start Registration” at the top
  5. Follow the registration process for a new claim for a literary work.
  6. Pay the registration fee ($55 for an electronic Submission and $85 for paper filing).
  7. Submit deposit copies of your work either electronically or by physical mail.

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Now that we've done that, we need to make sure we have a Copyright Notice in our book.  The best way to do this is through a book copyright page.

Book Copyright Page

A published work with a copyright registration requires a copyright notice. The copyright notice has three required elements and a standard format that's easy to follow.

The three required elements are:

  1. The copyright symbol ©. If you can’t figure out how to make the symbol you can also use (c)
  2. Year of first publication
  3. Author’s name

Arranged like this:
© 2019 John Doe

Adding additional information near the copyright notice can also be helpful. For example, you can add your name and contact information so that people seeking rights or permissions for your work can contact you.

According to the Copyright Office, placement of the copyright notice can be in any of the following locations in your book:

  • The title page, if any.
  • The page immediately following the title page, if any.
  • Either side of the front cover, if any, or if there is no front cover, on either side of the front leaf of the copies.
  • Either side of the back cover, if any, or if there is no back cover, either side of the back leaf of the copies.
  • The first page of the main body of the work.
  • The last page of the main body of the work.
  • Any page between the front page and the first page of the main body of the work, if (i) there are no more than ten pages between the front page and the first page of the main body of the work, and (ii) the notice is reproduced prominently and is set apart from the other matter on the page where it appears.
  • Any page between the last page of the main body of the work and the back page, if (i) there are no more than ten pages between the last page of the main body of the work and the back page, and (ii) the notice is reproduced prominently and is set apart from the other matter on the page where it appears.” (Source: U.S. Copyright Office)

Placing a copyright notice on your book makes any purchasers or readers of your book aware that copyright rights are claimed in the work. A copyright notice can also help prevent a defendant in an infringement action from limiting liability based on an “innocent” infringement defense.

The copyright notice also identifies the year of first publication, which may be used to determine the term of copyright protection for works such as an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire.

You can learn more about the elements of a copyright page here. In the meantime though, let's look at some fiction, non-fiction, and memoir copyright examples.

Copyright Page Examples

In addition to the required elements of the copyright notice and your contact information, you can also include any disclaimer or other information specific to the genre of your book.

Fiction Copyright Example

© 2019 John Doe

This book is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, companies, organizations, places, events, locales, and incidents are either used in a fictitious manner or are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual companies or organizations, or actual events is purely coincidental.

For rights and permissions, please contact:
John Doe
123 Main St.
Anywhere, State 12345


Non-Fiction Copyright Example

© 2019 John Doe

Every effort has been made by the author and publisher to ensure that the information contained in this book was correct as of press time. The author and publisher hereby disclaim and do not assume liability for any injury, loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions, regardless of whether any errors or omissions result from negligence, accident, or any other cause. Readers are encouraged to verify any information contained in this book prior to taking any action on the information.

For rights and permissions, please contact:
John Doe
123 Main St.
Anywhere, State 12345


Memoir Copyright Example

Copyright © 2019 by John Doe

All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.

For rights and permissions, please contact:

John Doe
123 Main St.
Anywhere, State 12345


Benefits to Copyrighting a Book: There's More Than You Think

When you register the copyright for your book, you create an asset that can be sold or licensed. For example, when you set up a separate company for your publishing business, you can assign or transfer your copyright registrations to the company and those copyright registrations become assets of your company. As you write new books, you can register your company as the owner of the copyright from the beginning. The copyright registration assets help add value to your publishing company.

You could also license the copyright rights of your book to your company. The choice of assigning or licensing rights to your company is one that may have tax or legal implications. You should get legal advice regarding this to be safe. That way, you can select the method that will be most advantageous for you from a financial perspective. Either way you go about it–assigning or licensing–you will need a copyright registration.

In addition to the above benefits, a copyright registration also provides the following benefits:

  • Gives evidence of validity. Registration creates a legal presumption of validity that anyone challenging must prove isn't correct.
  • It's a pre-requisite for a lawsuit. If you ever file a lawsuit about copyright infringement, the court will require registration before filing the lawsuit.
  • Can entitle you to statutory damages and attorney's fees. This is a biggie. Statutory damages and attorney's fees are often the biggest part of monetary awards asked for in copyright cases.
  • Satisfies the deposit requirement. Sometimes the Copyright Office wants deposit copies of published works. By completing the registration process, which includes sending in two copies of published work (for non-electronically published works), you already meet this requirement with registration.

Commonly Asked Book Copyright Questions

Do I have to register my copyright?

You aren’t required to register the copyright rights for your writing. However, registration has a lot of benefits. So, while registration is not required, doing it early in the process can help you down the road and keep you from losing any rights if you do not register in advance of any infringement of your work.

Do I have to renew my copyright?

No, for works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978 there is no renewal requirement.

How long does my copyright last?

If you claim the copyright rights as the author, then the copyright lasts for your lifetime plus 70 years.  If you wrote your work as a work for hire for your company or if you hired a writer to write on a work for hire basis for you or your company, then the copyright lasts for 95 years from publication or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever is longer.

What if I revise my book and release a new edition?

For new editions of your book, you will need to do a new registration. In the new registration, you can reference the earlier edition and registration.

What if I use material from another source in my book?

If you use material from another source in your book, for example from another writer with permission or from a public domain source, you will need to note this in your registration. If you are using material from another writer or publisher, be sure to get permission in writing for use of the material and save the permission document in your files for your book should a question ever arise as to ownership or permissions.

What if I hire a writer to write some or all of my books?

Always have a written contract with a hired writer (or a creative artist of any kind) that states that the work being produced by the writer falls under the agreement and that the work is being created as “work for hire” and you (or your company) own the rights to the work. The “work for hire” phrase is a magic legal phrase that needs to be included so it will be clear that the writer (or another creative artist) does not retain ownership in the copyright rights of the writing they are doing for you.

You can still register the copyright of a book that was written for you as work for hire, you will just need to indicate in the registration application that it is a work for hire and you (or your company) are considered the “author” for copyright registration purposes. You may need to provide proof of ownership of the work for hire. This is where the signed written contract will come in handy.

What if I use a free stock photo or purchase a photo?

If you use a stock photo or purchase a photo from a stock photography website, be sure to double-check the license that comes with that photo. You may have to purchase a standard or extended license in order to use the image in question, legally. It's always best to err on the side of caution when using stock images in your covers. Ensure that the image you've selected is available for commercial use. If you'd like to find out more about stock photos, licensing and copyright, take a look at this helpful article that goes over it in more detail.

What if I quote a famous person, do I need to add that to my copyright?

As a general rule of thumb, you don't need to alter your copyright when quoting a famous person, as long as you attribute your quote correctly to them, and the manner in which you're using the quote is in either a positive or neutral tone. That's because this falls under fair use. However, if you're writing an entire book of just quotes by famous people, that wouldn't be fair use and you would have to acquire consent from the various parties.

What if I quote a song or its lyrics?

It's best not to quote song lyrics in your books unless you're prepared to get in contact with the original artists or their agents/representatives to get permission. You absolutely must include their consent in the copyright of your book if you manage to get it. Even partial song lyrics should be correctly attributed and the relevant permissions should be acquired.

Copyright Terms You Should Know

To ensure you can gain the most out of your legitimately copyrighted book, and know your rights, here are some terms to review:

Copyright Infringement: The act of using a person's copyrighted work without their permission, thus infringing upon their exclusive rights as the copyright holder.

Libelous Writing: To publish or broadcast, either in print or online, false information about an individual that will negatively impact their reputation. This is usually done by casting the individual in question in a negative light and is considered defamation.

Plagiarism: Printing or presenting someone else's work or ideas as your own without their consent, or incorporating their ideas and work as part of your work without informing them or asking for consent, thus infringing upon their rights as the exclusive copyright holder.

Fair Use: The copying or use of copyrighted material in ‘transformative works.' Examples of transformative works might be reviews, critiques, parodies or general comments–under fair use, it's legal to use copyright work in transformative works without the consent of the copyright holder.

Public Domain Work: A Public Domain Work is a work, whether art or otherwise, that is not protected by copyright, trademark, patent or intellectual property laws and can be used without permission or cost. There are several criteria that a work must fall under to be considered public domain. You can view them here.

Intellectual Property: This is classed as the “intangible creations of human intellect,” such as copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Thus, books are classed as intellectual property whether printed or in eBook format.

Learn More About Copyrighting

Copyrights and the registration process can seem intimidating at first, but don’t worry. If you can write a book, you have what it takes to protect your work. If you'd like some additional resources on copyrights and the copyright process, here are a few resources to check out:

The Copyright Office: The Copyright Office also publishes many informational resources that they call “Circulars.” These digital pamphlets deal with various aspects of copyrights and are helpful. I find they can be a little general, but they do contain good information directly from the source.

Cornell University Library: A useful breakdown of copyright and how it works for online works and books. This write up goes into more detail about how long copyright lasts and what it applies to, including unpublished works.

15 Minute Copyright for Writers: This a training resource I created to lead authors step-by-step through the copyright process in 15 minutes or less. The guide includes step-by-step instructions and screenshots to take you from setting up your account with the Copyright Office to completing your registration filing. It is a digital guide that you can download and start using immediately to get your writing protected.

About the Author

Steve is an intellectual property attorney and registered patent attorney with over 16 years of experience helping clients protect their work through patent, trademark and copyright law. In addition to practicing law, Steve has authored numerous articles, several books, and training resources on patent and copyright topics. Steve was a software engineer before going to law school and lives in Florida with his wife, six of his eight kids still at home, and more pets than he wants to list.

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24 thoughts on “How to Copyright a Book in the U.S. (Written by a Lawyer)

  1. Liam

    Hi Dave, can you or anyone sound off on this? I’m in Canada. If I register my copyright in Canada, what happens if it’s infringed upon by someone in the States (or elsewhere)? Or do I have to register in Canada, in the States, and other nations?

    1. Dave Chesson

      I’m not sure.

  2. Eric Augustine Lopez

    Hello Dave. Thanks for your help in clarifying copyright questions and concerns. Do I need a copyright for my book title and cover design? Also, do I need permission to use a line from a song, or use the song performer’s name? I just finished writing my first book, and will self-publish. I want to get it right from the start. Thanks again!

    1. Dave Chesson

      No to the first question, and the second, not sure.

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