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Is Your Work Automatically Copyrighted?

New writers and marketers sometimes wonder if they have to do anything to ensure they own the copyright to their own writing.

In a word: No. But there are nuances you need to be aware of.

The Copyright Act of 1976 states that a work is created when it is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” This means when you write or create something, whether it's on your computer, using pen and paper or using recording equipment, you then own the rights to that work now and for 70 years past your death.

Any works published after March 1, 1989 are not required to bear a copyright notice. However, using a copyright notice informs the public that the work is protected. And should the work be infringed, the copyright notice will lend added weight to the copyright owner's case. More information on this and other copyright basics can be found here:

It is important to understand, however, that copyright law protects only your expression of ideas. It does not protect the ideas themselves.

From the 1976 Copyright Act: In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

For example, you could write a story in which a squirrel flies a spaceship to another planet, opens a stock market that uses balloons as currency and then uses the profits to float that planet back to this solar system. The story would be copyright protected and could not be reproduced without your permission. But but the idea of squirrels becoming astronauts that start balloon stock markets -as unique as that might sound - is not copyright-able.

What this means for you as an info-entrepreneur: You cannot copy other people's work without their express permission. You can, however, write your own introduction or commentary to an article or blog post, and then link back to that article or blog post. Better still, you can ask the author for permission to reprint the article or blog post on your own website, complete with your introduction and their link. But you would never, ever reprint their work without their permission.

And this includes posts made by visitors on your blog. If someone copies and pastes the work of someone else onto your blog, you might be held legally liable – even if you had no knowledge. Damages? Up to $150,000 per work.

There is a gray area to using other people's work, and it's called “Fair use.” It's gray because there is no acid test of what is legally safe and what is not. Basically “fair use” is a principle of copyright lay that states the public can use portions of copyrighted work without a license from the copyright owner, provided the use is for teaching, research, commentary or criticism.

But this leaves more questions than answers as to when you can use it and how much you can use. Bottom line, if you don't have permission from the copyright holder, then you could be opening yourself up to legal action. When in doubt, get permission. Always.

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