From Words to Rights—Copyright Law for Writers

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Copyright is a legal protection that grants exclusive rights to creators of original works. It gives them control over how their creations are used and prevents others from using or reproducing their work without permission. 

Copyright law applies automatically to original works as soon as they are created and fixed in a tangible, or physical, form. Understanding copyright is essential for freelance writers to protect their intellectual property, avoid plagiarism, negotiate contracts, and maximize business opportunities.

This article covers the purpose of copyright protection, what it protects, how freelance creators, in particular, can benefit from copyright laws, and how to handle any infringement upon their protected materials. 

Keep reading to fully understand the ownership of your creations, how it is protected upon inception in a physical form, and what to do if you believe your work has been used without permission.  

From Words to Rights—Copyright Law for Writers 1

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept that grants exclusive rights to creators of original works, protecting their intellectual property from unauthorized use, reproduction, distribution, or adaptation. It automatically applies to original works of authorship as soon as they are fixed in a form, such as writing, artwork, music, or software.

Purpose of Copyright Protection

When freelance writers create original content, copyright protection automatically applies to their creations. Understanding this protection is important to avoid having their work plagiarized and to secure the ability to negotiate contracts to expand business opportunities. 

This means the writer has the exclusive right to control how their work is used and can take legal action against anyone infringing upon those rights.

What Is Intellectual Property?

Intellectual property is defined as creations of the mind that have value and are protected under the law. It includes various forms of assets, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, trademarks, trade secrets, and designs.

Intellectual property rights grant creators and owners exclusive rights, control, and protection over their creations.

Rights of a Copyright Holder

As the copyright holder, you are granted exclusive rights over your original work. These rights include:

  • Reproduction: You have the exclusive right to reproduce your work, which means you can control the making of copies of your original creation. 
  • Distribution: You can control the distribution of your work, such as making it available to the public through selling, renting, or lending copies.
  • Adaptation: You can modify, translate, or transform your original work into different forms or mediums.
  • Performance and display: You can publicly perform or display your work. This applies to works like plays, musical compositions, or visual artworks meant to be performed or exhibited publicly.
  • Licensing: You have the authority to license your work. This means you can grant permission to others to use your copyrighted material.
  • Legal action: If someone infringes upon your copyright by using your work without permission, you can pursue legal action. 

What Does Copyright Protect?

Copyright covers a wide range of creative works across various forms of expression. It’s important to note that copyright protection applies to the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves. 

Some common types of creative works that are eligible for copyright protection include:

  • Literary works
  • Visual art
  • Music
  • Films and audiovisual works
  • Architecture
  • Software and computer programs
  • Choreography and dance
  • Dramatic works
  • Web content
  • Fashion designs

What Does Copyright NOT Protect?

Copyright does not protect certain types of content or ideas. It’s important to note that while copyright may not protect certain aspects listed below, other forms of intellectual property rights, such as patents, trademarks, or trade secrets, may provide protection in specific cases.

 Here are some examples of what copyright does not protect:

  • Ideas and concepts
  • Facts and information
  • Works in the public domain
  • Utilitarian goods and functional designs
  • Titles, names, and short phrases
  • Government works

What Is Freelance Writing & Copyright Ownership?

Freelance writing refers to the practice of creating content on a contractual basis without being employed by a specific company or organization. As a freelance writer, you retain the copyright ownership of your original work unless you explicitly transfer those rights to someone else.

Default Ownership

Default ownership of copyright rests with the creator of the work. So, as a freelance writer, you automatically own the copyright to the content you create. However, you can sign a contract stating otherwise, such as when creating specific content for an employer.

Importance of Contracts

Contracts play a crucial role in protecting freelance writers’ copyrights. When an agreement is in place, you can define the terms of the rights and permissions granted to the client or employer. Contracts work to avoid misunderstandings and copyright infringement. 

Importance of Contractual Key Clauses

When reviewing a publishing contract as a freelance writer, pay attention to key copyright and intellectual property clauses. 

  • Copyright ownership: Ensure you are granting the client or publisher only the necessary rights to use the work as intended.
  • Usage rights: Specify the medium, territory, and purpose for which the work can be used and whether the rights are exclusive or non-exclusive.
  • Payments and royalties: Determine the compensation you are entitled to if the work is reproduced or distributed in other formats or mediums.
  • Attribution and moral rights: Maintain the right to be credited as the author of the work.
  • Termination and reversion: Include clauses that explain the circumstances under which either party can terminate the agreement.

Copyright Registration

While copyright protection is automatic upon creation of the work, registering your copyright with the US copyright office provides additional benefits. 

As long as you meet the three basic requirements for copyright protection, you can secure a copyright for your materials. These three criteria are:

  • It must be your work.
  • It must be original.
  • It must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression. 

For most instances, the copyright process is simple:

  • Complete the application form either online or on paper through
  • Pay the filing fee.
  • Include the acceptable form of copies you are registering.

What Is the Fair Use Doctrine?

The Fair Use Doctrine is a legal principle that allows limited use of copyrighted material without obtaining permission from the copyright owner. 

The Fair Use Doctrine is based on the belief that certain uses of copyrighted material should be permitted, even without permission, if they serve a transformative, non-commercial, and socially beneficial purpose. The doctrine is flexible and requires a case-by-case analysis, considering four factors:

  • Purpose and character of the use
  • Nature of the copyrighted work
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used
  • Effect on the market value of the original work

Examples of What Constitutes Fair Use of Copyrighted Materials

Examples of fair use can vary depending on the specific context and circumstances of each case. However, here are some common scenarios that may be considered fair use:

  • Criticism and commentary: Quoting a portion of a copyrighted work to provide analysis, criticism, or commentary on the work.
  • News reporting: Using images or video clips in news reporting to inform the public about current events.
  • Educational purposes: Using copyrighted material in classroom teaching or academic research to enhance learning and understanding.
  • Parody and satire: Creating parodies or satirical works to comment on the original work.
  • Transformative works: Creating new works that significantly transform the original material, such as creating a collage or mash-up.
  • Non-commercial uses: Using copyrighted material for non-commercial purposes, such as personal use or research.

What Is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when someone violates the rights granted to a copyright owner. It involves the unauthorized use, reproduction, distribution, display, or creation of works based on a copyrighted work.

To determine if copyright infringement has taken place, consider the following factors:

  • Ownership
  • Substantial similarity
  • Unauthorized use

How to Detect Copyright Infringement

Detecting copyright infringement can be challenging, but there are several methods you can use:

  • Online tools: Take advantage of online services, such as reverse image search engines or plagiarism detection software, to identify unauthorized use or duplication of your work.
  • Monitoring services: Consider using monitoring services that scan the internet for potential infringement on your behalf.
  • Manual search: Regularly search popular websites, social media platforms, and online marketplaces for unauthorized use of your work.

Steps to Take if Your Work Has Been Infringed Upon

If you discover that your work has been infringed upon, there are a few things you can do to regain control of it. Copyright laws can vary from one area to the next, so it’s important to consult the copyright laws and seek legal advice from professionals to guide you through the process.

  • Document and gather evidence: Collect evidence of the infringement, including timestamps, screenshots, or any other information that proves your ownership of the material.
  • Cease and desist letter: Write a cease and desist letter to the infringing party requesting that they stop using your work and remove any copyrighted content.
  • DMCA takedown notice: If the infringement occurs online, file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice with the website or service hosting the infringing content.
  • Seek legal advice: Consult with an intellectual property attorney to assess your options and to determine if pursuing legal action is needed. 

What Is International Copyright Law?

International copyright law refers to the legal framework and agreements that govern copyright protection across different countries.

Creators seeking international copyright protection should consult the copyright laws of individual countries and consider additional steps, such as registering their works with local copyright offices or using international copyright registration services, to further secure their rights in foreign jurisdictions.

The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works

One of the most significant international agreements in copyright law is the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. Established in 1886, the Berne Convention is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Some key points the Berne Convention includes are:

  • Automatic protection: It establishes that copyright protection is automatic upon the creation of a work. 
  • National treatment: It explains that each member country must grant the same level of protection to foreign works and authors as it grants to its own domestic works and authors. 
  • Minimum standards: It sets the minimum duration of copyright, the rights granted to copyright holders, and the limitations and exceptions to those rights.
  • Moral rights: The Berne Convention recognizes authors’ moral rights, including the right to be attributed as the author and the right to object to modifications of the work that could harm the author’s reputation.
  • Enforcement and remedies: The Convention enforces copyright rights and encourages cooperation and coordination among member countries in enforcing copyright laws.

How Are Digital Rights Protected?

From Words to Rights—Copyright Law for Writers 2

Digital rights are protected through a combination of various legal frameworks, technology, and agreements. Here are some key aspects of protecting digital rights:

  • Copyright law: Copyright law grants exclusive rights to copyright owners. These rights apply to digital works, such as text, images, music, videos, software, and other digital content.
  • Digital rights management (DRM): DRM technologies are used to control access to digital content and enforce the rights of copyright holders. 
  • Licensing and permissions: Copyright owners can grant licenses and permissions to use their digital content. 
  • Digital platforms and copyright: Digital platforms have their own terms of service governing how users interact with copyrighted material. 
  • Content ID systems: Content identification systems use automated algorithms to scan uploaded content and identify potential copyright infringements.

Managing Rights and Permissions for Online Content

When managing rights and permissions for online content, writers should consider the following:

  1. Clearly define the terms of use for your content through licensing agreements or terms of service on your website.
  2. Use watermarks or other identifying information to clarify your ownership of digital works.
  3. Regularly monitor the internet for potential infringements of your copyrighted material.
  4. Be familiar with the policies and guidelines of the digital platforms you use to ensure compliance with their terms of service and copyright policies.
  5. Consider registering your copyrighted works with relevant copyright offices.
  6. Seek legal advice when necessary, especially if you encounter significant copyright infringements that require legal action.


Copyright laws play a critical role in safeguarding the works of writers and creators. These laws grant exclusive rights to authors and protect their original expressions. They provide control over how works are used, reproduced, and distributed. Copyright protection extends to various forms of digital content to ensure protection in an ever-changing technological landscape. 

Writers should recognize the importance of copyright and take steps to educate themselves on its principles and application. By understanding copyright and its implications for their work, freelance writers can effectively manage their intellectual property, safeguard their creations, and make informed business decisions. 

Writers should prioritize copyright education and take advantage of available resources and legal guidance to protect their intellectual property. By doing so, writers can share their works with the world while maintaining control over their creations.