Copyrighted Book Laws

By Cindy Hill

The book publishing industry is changing rapidly, but copyright laws continue to protect the rights of authors, whether their material is published on paper, online or as an e-book. Copyright protection gives authors, or the firms with whom they contract to publish their books, the exclusive right to distribute their works or create sequels for a set period of time. This helps to ensure that authors can make a living from their writing.


Copyright laws protect the rights of people who develop creative material, including "original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works." Copyright law allows authors to preclude others from diminishing the economic value of their works by reproducing or creating sequels to their writings without the author's permission. Authors, like other copyright holders, may transfer their copyrights to others as long as the transfer is done in writing and signed by the author. Publishers often acquire at least a portion of the author's copyright to literary works as an element of the publishing contract. The same copyright laws apply to e-books.


Basic copyright protection arises automatically as soon as a literary work is committed to a "tangible medium of expression." In other words, an idea for a future novel in an author's head is not protected by copyright law, but once the words are written on a piece of paper or typed into a digital file, the author holds the copyright to those written words. Copyright registration is not legally required, but does provide writers with significant advantages. Copyright in a literary work can be registered by completing the U.S. Copyright Office's online application form and submitting it together with a copy of the work and appropriate filing fee. A work must be registered before the author can bring an enforcement lawsuit against someone who has infringed on her literary copyright.

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Fair Use

Not every unpermitted use of a literary work constitutes copyright infringement. Copyright law allows some narrowly limited uses of copyrighted book contents, or other written materials, for fair use. Fair use exceptions commonly include use of limited quotations from the material for purposes of literary or scholarly criticism, or the use of portions of a book in a classroom setting to illustrate a particular lesson. Photocopying a full-length book rather than buying a copy, even for purposes of educational use, does not qualify as fair use because it negatively impacts the market value of the book, making it harder for the author to make a living from the sale of her work.


The length of copyright protection for books and other written works varies depending on the date the work was created. For any works written after January 1, 1978, copyright protects the work for the life of the author plus 70 years, with the copyright passing to the author's heirs after her death if not already transferred during the author's lifetime. The duration of copyright for works written before 1978, produced by anonymous authors or works-for-hire differ depending on the date and manner in which the work was written. Once copyright protection expires, the work is considered to be in the public domain, and the former copyright holder can no longer preclude others from printing, selling, or creating sequels to her book.

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