When it comes to the world of self-publishing, indie authors are much like the brave adventurers of lore--they chart their own course, overcome terrifying obstacles, and often do it with just their wits (and a healthy dose of Diet Coke and/or alcohol and/or cookies) to sustain them.
However, like any good adventurer, understanding the lay of the land is crucial--and in this case, the land is the wonderful, yet perplexingly complex world of copyright. Fear not, my friends, for I--your humble guide--shall illuminate the path ahead! So grab a cup of something that will sustain you, and let's dive into this weird thing that the ancients called "copyright."
In its simplest form, copyright is a form of legal protection for creators of original works, including literature, drama, music, and other artistic pieces. Now, before your eyes glaze over from the legal jargon, think of it as the mother hen that fiercely guards her chicks--it's that thing that wraps its protective wings around your work and squawks menacingly at anyone trying to poach it.
Contrary to some mythologies circulating in the Interwebz (geez, THAT place is crazy!), a work is copyrighted the moment it's created in a fixed, tangible form. That's right, the second your fingers stop working, and your work has been written in a fixed form (meaning, in your computer, on your pad of paper, or even scrawled on a roll of toilet paper, IT IS PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT. That bears repeating, so I will say it again, in the following cool and eye-catching manner:
Now, you might be thinking, "Well, that sounds fantastic, but what does this protection actually do?" Excellent question!
Copyright, in essence, gives you the exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, display, or perform your work publicly.
You also get the joy/world-rending power of deciding if others can use your work--and how. So, you're not just an author but also a lord (or lady) of your creative realm, wielding your quill-sword to guard your intellectual property.
Wow, lots of metaphors in this article. Which, given that it's been written in fixed form on this screen, ARE ALL PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT. MINE! MINE, I TELLS YA!
Now, onto a darker tale--the dreaded beast known as copyright infringement. I.e., when someone decides they fancy your work enough to use it without your permission, violating those exclusive rights we talked about earlier. When this happens, you're entitled to sue the infringer and potentially recover damages.
But here's where the plot thickens. Recovering damages isn't as straightforward as showing up in court, proclaiming, "They stole my work!" and leaving with a fat check.
There are two types of damages you can recover in a copyright infringement case: actual damages and statutory damages.
Actual damages refer to the amount of money you've lost due to someone else stealing your work.
This usually equates to the profits you would have made if the infringement hadn't occurred. It sounds reasonable, but proving actual damages is tricky at best, downright impossible at worst. You'll have to prove how many sales you lost or how the infringement affected your book's market value, which is as tricky as predicting how many cups of Diet Coke I'll need to write my next novel.
Statutory damages, on the other hand, are a predetermined sum of money you can seek if you've registered your work with the U.S. Copyright Office before the infringement or within three months of publication. The beauty of statutory damages is that they don't require proof of actual harm. Meaning that once you've proven the work was stolen, you don't have to prove exactly how much that theft harmed you. The proof it was stolen triggers the statutory damages automatically, and given that those statutory damages can be up to $150,000 per infringement, that can be a lot of moolah.
But why, you may wonder, are actual damages so difficult to prove or recover in a copyright case? Well, to answer that, we need to dive a bit deeper into the abyss of copyright law and its inherent challenges....
The main problem with actual damages is the multitude of factors influencing a book's success. Popularity, market trends, quality of writing, the appeal of the cover design--all of these elements (and so many more) play a role. Trying to isolate the impact of a single infringement on your book's sales is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. In the dark. With a pair of tweezers. Made of needles. Or haystacks.
The process often requires expert testimony, which, I can tell you from experience (I used to be an attorney before I became Slightly Less Evil as an author), is EXPENSIVE.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that actual damages are often quite low in the context of self-published works. This isn't a knock on indie authors, mind you (some of my best friends are indie authors!), but it IS reality. The market is flooded with books, and most of them don't turn into runaway bestsellers (as much as we'd love them to). So, even if you can prove that the infringer sold 100 copies of your book, the court might only award you the royalties you would have earned on those sales, or even turn around and decide that the infringer is a better marketer than you (probably because the infringer took my Bestseller Life courses, albeit for evil purposes), and the only sales you would have made were three copies to your mom, your sister, and that one weird guy who keeps following you into the bathroom at the library (don't ask!). Ta-dum! You've just been awarded 99 cents!
Now, this might have you clutching your manuscript in despair, contemplating a change of career. But, remember our silver lining - statutory damages. If you've done your due diligence and registered your work with the U.S. Copyright Office (it's not as scary as it sounds, I promise), you're eligible to seek these damages. So register your work!
At the end of the day, understanding copyright isn't just about safeguarding your work--it's about empowering yourself as an author. It's about knowing your rights, standing up for your creations, and ensuring your voice is heard. Sure, it might feel like you're journeying through a labyrinth at times, but remember, every adventurer faces trials and tribulations. It's part of the journey, part of the adventure. You've (and your trusty Diet Coke) have got this!
Protect yourself and your work with these handy-dandy steps!
I'm Michaelbrent Collings, an international bestseller and produced screenwriter, as well as a multiple Bram Stoker Award and Dragon Award finalist, and maker of a fair-to-middling chocolate chip waffle.
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