A copyright is a legal protection for writers who produce what the government calls “original works of authorship.” Magazine articles certainly fit into this category, as do screenplays, books, and even musical arrangements.
You can copyright your articles whether they are published or not, as your copyright begins the minute a work takes “fixed form.” In the case of magazine articles, this usually means that copyright begins when you create a Word document and use the “save” key function on your computer.
The protection of copyright prevents most other uses of your work without your express, written permission, but there are exceptions. For instance, if your story is an idea that you have not yet written down, then it is not protected by copyright because it is not in a fixed form. And, even if your work is in a fixed form, others may be able to use parts of it without your permission.
The “fair use” doctrine is an exception to copyright law. Basically, it allows other people to use small portions of your copyrighted work within their own creations, such as quoting a paragraph from a book that you wrote. Another exception is any work you do for the government. This is usually placed automatically in the public domain.
The Copyright Symbol
When the 1976 Copyright Act became law, it required the use of the copyright symbol for protected works. That symbol is a C inside of a circle, most often shown like this: ©.
Today, the use of the copyright symbol is no longer required to establish that a copyright is in effect, though some writers still use the symbol if only to make clear that they understand the value of their work and will not stand for copyright infringements. You will learn in this chapter how making this understanding clear can be beneficial later on, if your copyright is violated.
How Long Copyright Lasts
Any magazine article that you write today will be protected by copyright from the time that you create the work until seventy years after your death — unless you assign the copyright to someone else, such as an heir, or sell all your rights to the work to a publisher. If you coauthor a magazine article, the copyright will last until seventy years after the last surviving author's death, or until there is a similar transfer of copyright to a third party.
Copyright lasts longer on articles you write under work-for-hire contracts. In those cases, the copyright lasts ninety-five years after initial publication, or 120 years from the article's creation, whichever time period is shorter. Again, though, because you will have signed a work-for-hire contract, the copyright will not be yours. It will belong to the magazine that hired you to write the article.
Can you get your copyright back after you give it away or sell it to a third party?
Yes, but only during certain windows of time and after following specific notification guidelines. Usually, you will need the help of an attorney who specializes in copyright and trademark law.
Changes in Copyright Law
From time to time, the U.S. government enacts changes to copyright law. You can keep abreast of important changes that may affect you by reading notices from professional writers' organizations such as the National Writers Union or the American Society of Journalists and Authors, or by reading the