In the second installment of Quick Questions, we’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions regarding copyright.

      Please note: Copyright is dependent on the country of the author. We will try to speak only about the biggest issues involving copyright; however, even general points may be contradicted by country-specific laws. Please consult with your country’s copyright office for answers and clarifications on copyright within your government’s jurisdiction. This is a quick overview of copyright laws and not legal advice. Please consult a lawyer for specific and sensitive copyright-related questions. 

What is copyright?

     In its most general form, copyright is exclusive rights to original material. The Australian copyright office says “Copyright is not a tangible thing. It is made up of a bundle of exclusive economic rights to do certain acts with an original work or other copyright subject-matter.”

      This means you can copy it (you have the “right” to copy it), sell it for ten thousand dollars, sell it for ten cents, bequeath the work and copyright as a gift, or keep the material hidden in a cave like you’re Gollum squatting on the One Ring. Copyright is granted by the government, so many specifics on copyright law will be unique to your country (don’t worry if you’re a world traveler– we’ll get to that in a minute).

      At its heart, copyright tries to keep other people from making money on things you’ve created and don’t intend to offer for free.

What does copyright protect?

      Copyright protects a variety of things: written materials, songs, movies, photographs, dance, spoken word pieces, paintings, and sculptures, as well as less-artistic things like computer programs and coding, newspaper articles, news broadcasts, architectural plans, and product instruction manuals. Generally, copyright does not protect ideas. It protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression”. This definition comes from the US Copyright Office, but is similar to laws from other countries.

      Here’s the distinction: no one owns the idea of vampire romance expressed in limericks. However, if you’ve written 200 lusty-vampire limericks, you have the copyright to the book and your particular limericks: the tangible expression of that idea.

Who establishes copyright?

      Copyright laws are different for each country. A quick Google search can lead you to the official department for your country.
US: United States Copyright Office
UK: Intellectual Property Office 
Australia: Copyright section of Attorney-General’s Department
Canada: Canada Intellectual Property Office

      Make sure to look for sites using a government-specific URL (such as .gov or one unique to your country). Other sites may look like government sites, but are really companies or individuals.

What if I’m in a different country?

      Luckily, many countries have agreements with each other to honor copyright across borders. The Berne Convention is one such agreement. Dozens of countries agreed to honor the document (see the full list here). It covers international copyright in some unusual ways:

  • If your original work was published in both a member country and non-member country, you receive the Berne Convention rights of the member country.
  • If you are not a citizen of a member country, but your work was published there (if the US is your work’s country of origin but not your country of origin), you will receive the same copyright protection as citizens of that member country.
  • Member countries can enter agreements with other member countries in order to grant additional protection. Contact the copyright department of your country of origin or your current country to see if there are any additional benefits.


How do I get copyright on my original works?

      In many countries, copyright is automatically granted to you when you create an original work. We’re writing this article in WordPad: we have the copyright on this post even before it goes up on Some countries will offer additional protection through an official copyright registration process. In Canada, fees start at $50 for processing a copyright application. Fees in the US start at $35.

      There is one huge reason to pay for copyright protection in the US: you won’t be able to legally easily defend your copyright . (For more on this point, see Part II) Realistically, you won’t be pulled into legal battles for every word you’ve put on paper. We’re not suggesting that you shell out $35 every time you write a grocery list. If you choose to copyright a lengthy document, like a full-length novel, that’s entirely up to you. Balance that $35 against the unlikelihood your work will be stolen, potential awarded damages if you do go to court, your peace of mind, and your current financial situation.

Does it cost to copyright?

     Unless your government requires a paid registration with the copyright office, it should not cost anything to copyright your work. The notable exception is the US, where it is required to pay in order to have a legally useful copyright.

What about the poor man’s copyright?

      “Poor man’s copyright” is a myth. It refers to the idea that a copy of your work mailed to yourself and the postmarked date will serve as evidence in court. The US Copyright Office specifically states “There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”

      The copyright department in the UK has a similar statement with a big disclaimer: “Alternatively, a creator could send himself or herself a copy by special delivery post (which gives a clear date stamp on the envelope), leaving the envelope unopened on its return…It is important to note, that this does not prove that a work is original or created by you.” (emphasis own)

      Using a poor man’s copyright may give you peace of mind, but your country’s official copyright process will always be your best option.


This is the first part of a series. The next part will deal with sharing copyrighted works, including using Creative Commons licensing on your work and contacting copyright holders for permission to use their works.

     Got any more questions on copyright? Email or tweet @popular_soda. Don’t forget to share this article with the buttons below!