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Know who owns what when it comes to copyrights, creative rights and intellectual property

Books at Books To Believe In
Books at Books To Believe In
Collage by EJ Thornton

* EJ is a publisher, not an attorney - this article is to be interpretated as information, not legal advice *

Most authors are intimidated when it comes to intellectual property (IP). Copyrights and creative rights, secondary rights and trademarks are all topics the new author needs to become familiar with and use to their best advantage.

Through intellectual property law, a creative piece is copy written when it is in a tangible form of expression. That is when the article, book, work of art has been painted, printed or saved on a computer disk, etc. It is up to the author to record that date themselves using whatever means they have. Many authors use what has been dubbed 'a poor-man's copyright' by taking their manuscript and mailing it themselves using the postmark on the package to create proof of the date. This is a waste of time, and usually not permissable in court. Some publisher's advise: if you are going to do this, send the manuscript to a lawyer. The date stamp they place on the envelope will hold up in court.

Most authors understand about the Library of Congress and getting a formal copyright applied for. This is a necessary step for the author to take if they are hoping to have commercial success with their work.

Now, for the tricky part... the book cover. Who owns the rights to the book cover? A self-published author who hired a graphic artist to create the book cover might not own the rights to the cover of their own book. Intellectual property belongs to the creator, the artist or the author who created the work. It must transfer explicitly in writing! The proper way to hire a graphic artist (or web developer or illustrator) is to create a 'Work For Hire' contract, which explicitly states that the rights to the creative work revert to the author at the moment the artist has been compensated for the work. For the author who hired his brother or niece to create his/her book cover, if there wasn't a 'work for hire' contract, that relative owns the rights to the book's artwork. For the author who hired the college intern to do the website, if there wasn't a 'work for hire' contract, that intern owns the creative rights to that website. Assuming that payment alone completed the transaction is not an accurate assessment.

Titles are not copyrightable. Some authors will not disclose the name of their book when talking to a publishing service provider for fear of being ripped off somehow. However, titles are considered 'ideas' and as such are not copyrightable. Ideas are not copyrightable - only the expression of those ideas (in tangible form) are. Once the idea has been fleshed out, and expressed, then it can be copywritten. Until then, it is just an idea. If an author is truly that skeptical about sharing their idea with a potential service provider, the author should draw up a 'non-disclosure agreement' and have the service provider sign it before ideas are exchanged. It truly puts the service provider at a disadvantage to discuss terms or a transaction without knowing the topic and the direction of the project.

Titles and names can be trademarked, even if they can't be copy written. Talking to an attorney who specializes in Intellectual Property or doing research at can answer the question if a trademark could help protect the property.

Intellectual Property is exactly that - property. It can be sold, willed, transferred or otherwise traded. It is an asset and needs to be treated with as much respect as you would treat any tangible asset. Selling a car requires the exchange of a title. Selling a product yields a receipt and proof of ownership. Intellectual property needs the same, if not more, consideration. It can only be exchanged in writing and until then it belongs to the artist, even if money has exchanged hands or a verbal agreement has been made.

Click here to find good books on Intellectual Property.

To find out more about copyrights via the Public Domain article, click here.


  • Othniel Seiden 5 years ago

    This is a terrific article, and one that should be read by all writers, especially novices. I've seen too many writers ripped of by people who charge exorbitant prices for copy-write and other services, that most good publishers take care of as part of their services.