Ironically, after recently writing about how complicated copyright law is and how many people constantly misunderstand it, an attorney read our freelance writing blog and noticed a copyright error right there at the bottom of every page. We’re no experts, but copyright law for writers fools everyone sometimes, it seems.
The freelance writing business of ArcticLlama has been around for a few years now. Most of the online content we produce for our own website started showing up online in 2008. Naturally, we placed a copyright notice at the bottom of each webpage in the footer. While this is not 100% neccessary for copyright purposes, it is typcially considered goo practice. As you can imagine, the notice read Copyright 2008 ArcticLlama, LLC.
When 2009 started, we updated, the copyright notice. After all, an out of date copyright notice looks unprofessional and gives people the impression that your website or your content is out of date, and that is something we don’t want. However, since our copyright notice was displayed automatically by our WordPress theme every time any webpage or blog post was viewed, we knew that sometimes the intellectual property on that page would be from 2008. Thus, we changed our copyright notice to Copyright 2008 – 2009 ArcticLlama, LLC.
If you are a copyright attorney, or have real world experience with intellectual property law, you already know where this is going. For the rest of you, read on…
This year, with the dawn of 2010, we once again updated our copyright notice. With content on this website now ranging from 2008 to 2010, we figured the best way to adjust our copyright date was to acknowledge the whole date range and our new blog footer contained the copyright notice Copyright 2008 – 2010 ArcticLlama, LLC.
What’s the problem?
As it turns out material is not copyrighted over multiple years, per se. While something may have been first copyrighted in 2008, that fact is immaterial for 2010.
In other words, there is no way to infringe upon the 2008 copyright today. So, the only copyright that matters in the present day is the one currently in force, or in other words, Copyright 2010 ArcticLlama, LLC.
Copyright Multiple Years
If you’re like us, just getting the simple one-liner answer isn’t always enough. To satisfy the curious, intellectual mind, a deeper understanding is required. While we have abandoned any efforts to fully understand copyright law, like many writers, we are also active readers, and we have seen plenty of books with more than one copyright year in them. What gives?
All artistic works are copyright by their creators from the moment of inception. (Technically, it is from the moment of publication, but if anyone else sees it, that becomes a publication, so the point is moot.) There is a frequent misconception that writings or other art must be submitted to the government in order to get a copyright. That is not true.
However, materials CAN be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. The purpose of this registration is primarily to establish evidence of copyright in the event of an actual copyright dispute. Keep in mind, this is not of any help for anyone purposely infringing on copyrights or ignoring the copyright all together. Website content thieves, for example, are no more or less guilty if the materials they steal have a registered copyright.
What a registered copyright does do is prevent someone else from claiming to be the original author. In other words, registering the copyright for your screenplay doesn’t make you any more protected from theft, but it does keep some big shot Hollywood screenwriter from saying that he wrote the script.
You can see the value by considering that if Susie Homemaker from Smalltown, Kansas writes a script that Sally Superstar later claims to have authored, most courts, and indeed most people, are more likely to believe Superstar in the absence of any other evidence. But, if Superstar claims to have written the script in 1997 and Homemaker produces a registered United States copyright from 1996, Superstar is sunk.
(Typically, this scenario doesn’t happen. Most authors and agents have no need to steal scripts, but if they did, chances are very slim that they would just copy it word for word. Re-writing it, even a little bit, makes it very difficult to win a copyright case.)
Book Publishers Register Copyrights On Everything
Professional book publishing companies register a copyright on every single thing they publish. Ironically, they may have the least to worry about since there would be numerous channels to prove when the published something, not the least of which would be the records of thousands of book sellers, royalty payments, author contracts, and tax records. Even so, nothing is quite as clean as a registered copyright.
Do book publishers need more than one copyright?
Not really, if the material stays the same.
That is the rub, however. Book publishers frequently publish multiple editions, sometimes with changes made to the text, or pictures, or other things. When they do so, that material is still copyrighted under the same rule that covers all artistic works, registered or not, but the originally registered copyright would not necessarily cover material that was substantially altered.
So, whenever a book, or other work, is changed enough, the publisher will register another copyright. Typically, this will be done with the original work included in the new copyright as well. Therefore, the original version of the book is covered under multiple copyrights from multiple years.
Proper Copyright Notice Formatting
Even if material is copyrighted more than once from multiple years, it is still incorrect to notice that fact with a date range. Rather, the year of each registration of copyright should be listed individually. Thus, an item with four different registered copyrights would be noticed like this: Copyright 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010.
For freelance writers and other writers publishing materials online or off, however, it is not necessary to list every year the material has been published. Only the years that a copyright was registered need be listed.
Good writing, everyone!
And, by the way, this article is Copyright 2010 ArcticLlama, LLC