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Debunking copyright myths for self-publishers

This month, Jo Teng, a senior lawyer at the Australian Copyright Council, explains Australian copyright for self-publishers. 

As a self-publisher, you have total control over your book. You get to choose the freelancers you work with, have final say over your manuscript, the cover design, as well as the marketing strategy. Such control is incredibly empowering, but it also means that the work a publishing company looks after in a traditional publishing arrangement—including all ‘the legal stuff’—is now your responsibility.

At the Copyright Council, I often get calls and emails from authors seeking advice on copyright before they take the plunge to self-publish. Here’s my list of common questions about copyright, and the answers.

Is copyright free?

Yes. In Australia, you don’t have to register your copyright. You don’t have to pay fees to get copyright, have any forms signed by a lawyer, or even put the copyright notice on your work. Copyright is free and automatic the moment you write something original (i.e., not copied from elsewhere) onto a manuscript or save a Word document to your computer hard drive. What’s more, thanks to international treaties, almost every country around the world, including your obvious markets (the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, etc.) will recognise your copyright.

I’m confused—I found a website offering to register my copyright!

It’s a scam. A common situation I am asked about at the Copyright Council is from creators who have unwittingly paid a fee to ‘register’ their copyright with a website, and later receive emails demanding additional payments to ‘renew’ their registration (with the threat of legal action if that payment isn’t made). If you have paid to ‘register’ your copyright and are receiving such emails, just ignore them—any website offering to register your copyright in Australia, and your refusal to pay any ‘renewal’ fee will not result in legal action.

Unfortunately, such scam websites are typically based overseas, so it’s practically impossible for us in Australia to get such websites taken down. All we can do is educate people about copyright and ask others to do the same.

So, do I need to put the © symbol on my work?

It’s a very good idea to put a copyright notice on your work (e.g. ‘Copyright Jane Leong 2018’). Using a copyright notice helps to remind people that your work is protected by copyright and tells them who the copyright owner is, but it’s not a requirement to get copyright in the first place. In other words, if you forget to put a copyright notice on your book, don’t worry—your book is still protected by copyright.

Can I claim copyright in my idea?

No. Copyright applies to the actual expression of ideas (e.g. a written book, a captured photograph), not the idea itself. For example, anyone can write a story using the idea of a chosen one, of lovers separated by the cruelties of fate, or a weird family that lives in a haunted house, and that specific story will be protected by copyright but you can’t prevent people from using the same idea as inspiration for their own writing.

Can I copyright my title?

No. Short strings of text—a title, a name, a quippy slogan—don’t get copyright protection because they’re too small to qualify as a literary work. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Just Do It—none of these word combinations are protected by copyright. However, they are registered as trademarks with IP Australia, which gives them protection as brands. So while it’s no problem to write in your book that Harry Potter is your character’s favourite series, you should steer well away from using ‘Harry Potter’ in your book title or marketing.

Can I take pictures off the internet to use as my book cover and/or illustrations?

Contrary to what some people think, the internet is not the public domain. ‘Public domain’ refers to material over which copyright has expired, not what anyone can easily find. Given that the current duration of copyright for pictures is the life of the artist plus 70 years, this means the vast majority of images you’ll find online are still protected by copyright.

If you find such a picture online and want to use it for your book, you’ll first need to seek permission from the copyright owner. That permission (which lawyers refer to as a licence) may come with a licence fee. Although some copyright owners may be generous and forego such a fee, that is a decision for them, just as it is your decision as the author and copyright owner of your book to choose what to do with your book, and what to charge for it.

If you don’t seek permission and simply take a picture to copy into your book without a licence from the copyright owner, it is very likely that you have infringed copyright. The copyright owner can choose to protect their copyright in a number of ways, including going to court. However, even if the copyright owner is in another country and can’t afford to sue you, they can still take other steps, including demanding that any websites hosting your book take your book down. In other words, if you don’t ‘clear’ the rights and get permission to use a photograph in your book, and you list your book on Amazon, the photographer can contact Amazon and demand that they remove your book from sale because it infringes their copyright, and Amazon will do so.

All this ‘legal stuff’ is complicated, where can I get legal advice?

The Copyright Council is a small, non-profit organisation that advises on and advocates for copyright law. We provide a free legal advice service through which we can help you understand your situation and figure out a way to move forward. We also have a large number of free information sheets on our website covering almost every aspect of copyright law, including how long copyright lasts, owning and licensing copyright, and copyright exceptions. For more information, head to

 Jo Teng is the senior lawyer at the Australian Copyright Council.


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