Are Online Ebooks Automatically Copyrighted?

by Tom Streissguth
Books in digital form still fall under federal copyright laws.

Books in digital form still fall under federal copyright laws.

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With the growing popularity of e-books, the opportunity for literary pirates to make use of copyrighted material for their own profit also increases. Federal law, however, provides grounds for legal action if anyone makes use of another's written work -- even when the author uses a digital or online format for publication.

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Federal law, as set out in Title 17 of the United States Code, covers copyright protection. This law has jurisdiction throughout the United States and its territories, and federal copyright-infringement claims are handled in federal district courts. The United States Copyright Office is the registrar of new copyrights and archive of previous copyrights.

Copyright Claims

The law does not require registration of a copyright in order for an author to have legal ownership of that copyright. When you create an original work of authorship in a permanent, fixed form, then you hold a copyright to that work. Legal forms of copyrighted work include include tangible text media such as books or magazines; it also includes e-books, which are fixed and stored in an electronic digital medium.

Copyright Notice

Publishers and individual authors normally declare their claim to copyright with a copyright notice. In printed or e-book form, this notice usually comes near the start of the work and includes the copyright symbol ©, as well as the year of publication and the name of the individual or organization claiming copyright. By the Berne Convention signed by the United States in 1989, however, no copyright notice is required in order to hold legal copyright protection of a written work.

Term of Copyright

By federal law effective on January 1, 1978, copyright in written works lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. If you wish to transfer your e-book copyright exclusively to another person or entity, you must do so in writing. Non-exclusive rights do not need to be conveyed in writing. Without written permission, no one holds exclusive rights to your work.


You may protect your e-book copyright against infringement in court, but you must register the copyright with the United States Copyright Office in order to do so. The registration creates a public record of your copyright, which must be done within five years of publication and provides legal proof to the court that you are the copyright holder. If you register the copyright within three months after you publish the e-book, you may claim damages, attorney fees, and the profit realized by the infringing party. Otherwise, you can only claim damages and profit.

Protected Use

Copyright limits the use others may have of your work. Your copyrighted work may not be reproduced, transferred, or sold in any form -- digital or hard-copy -- without your permission. The legal convention known as “fair use” limits the amount of quoted material from your work which another party, such as a book reviewer, may use in his own work.