So, you’ve finished your material, and you are ready to publish it. First? You need to protect it. Obtaining copyright, an ISBN, and an LCCN number is critical to protecting your rights.

What is Copyright?

What is copyright? A copyright is an exclusive set of rights, or protection, provided to authors of original work to protect the use of the work by others. These rights include the control of how the work is copied, distributed, publicly displayed, or adapted.

In the United States, copyrights are protected and enforced by the U.S. Copyright Office. This article will focus on rights in the U.S. as about the use of copyrights.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, of the U.S. Constitution, the “Copyright Clause,” authorizes Congress to secure authors and inventors the right to their respective writings and discoveries.

What is Protected under Copyright Laws?

Tangible forms of expression that are covered by U.S. Copyright Law include:

  • Literary works
  • Dramatic works
  • Musical works
  • Choreographs
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural work
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works, such as blueprints

Non-tangible forms are not able to be copyrighted. Copyright does not protect:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as a choreographic work that has not been
  • notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents

Confusion often resides with names, titles, slogans, and short phrases. These items can receive trademark protection, but they are not protected by copyright law.

For example, the word apple is not protected by copyright. The use of the word Apple with a particular font, image, and an icon can be trademarked or registered.

If work is created as part of an employment contract, then copyright automatically transfers to the employer. The employer then will register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. This can get complicated, so read the Works Made for Hire publication by the Copyright Office.

Copyright protection starts from the moment of creation and continues until 70 years after the death of the author or artist. Therefore you can copy authors like Shakespeare or artists like Leonardo da Vinci and put their words or artwork on a shirt, for example.

Ownership by Default

Here’s the good news. By default, copyright protection exists from the moment a work is created (as long as it is original).  In law, you automatically have the right to control who makes copies, distributes copies, performs or displays your work, or make adaptions of your work. Enforcement of this law is where it gets tricky.

There are exceptions to this rule, however. One is that without filing it with the Copyright Office, you have no proof that you own the copyright. The Fair Use policy is another big exception.

Before March 1, 1989, the use of a copyright notice was required under U.S. law. However, it’s still important to use the © symbol on blog posts, books, and other objects to identify the copyright owner and the year that it was first sold or distributed.

Use Rights for Publishing of Writing, Content

Here is a breakdown of the similar type of rights between publishers and content creators.

  • One-time publication rights. The magazine or publisher has the right to publish your article once and once only. For example, in print but not online (print is one-time). You retain copyright.
  • First North American Serial Rights (FNASR). The magazine or publisher has the right to reproduce your material in a magazine or newspaper in North America and Canada for the first time. You are not transferring electronic rights. Its grants that magazine an exclusive right to publish the material for the first time. You retain copyright.
  • First Rights. The publisher has the right to publish the article first, ahead of any other publisher. Unlike FNASR, it does not specify where or how the material may be used. They can also print it in more than one medium; i.e., both in print and online. They could publish it internationally and within North America. You retain copyright.
  • Reprint Rights. Also called second rights, the publisher is notified that the material has been published before and that it is a reprint. The original publisher is usually credited when the material is reprinted.
  • All Rights. If the publisher buys all rights to the article, they own the copyrighted material. You transfer your copyright to them and have no more authority over its duplication. You lose the copyright, but you retain authorship.
  • Work for hire. Similar to the all rights, the publisher purchases all rights to the material. This is similar to when a company hires you to write (or ghostwrite) a book for publication under their brand. You must sign a work-for-hire agreement to lose the copyright before the copyright is transferred. You lose both the copyright and authorship.

Read for additional information about contribution to periodicals (magazine).

How to Register

If you are writing a book or other tangible object, it is still important to register with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering with the U.S. Copyright Office creates a public record of the copyright ownership.

Registration is also necessary before you can file an infringement lawsuit. It’s critical to go on record within three months after selling or distributing the work to the public to receive statutory damages. It also has to be filed before you can claim infringement of your rights.

Here are links to the U.S. Copyright Office. The Main Portal is an excellent place to start if you are not sure what you are copyrighting or are doing something other than a book or digital content. Here are the individual portals.

Once you have worked through the online portal, you will then be able to upload digital copies of your work and pay the fee. You also then must submit two hard (physical) copies of your work to the Copyright Office, although that rule can vary.

Prefer Pen and Paper? Here you go! Copyright Office Registration Forms

Once you have completed the application form, you will then have to submit copies of the work and a registration fee to the Register of Copyrights, Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559-6000. You can also do this online and pay using their online portal.

After at least six months, you will receive your copyright certificate in the mail. [It can take up to a year.] Congratulations!

Fair Use Policy

Copyright rights are not unlimited, and certain limitations are applied. One of these is the “Fair Use” doctrine. The doctrine allows limited copying of copyrighted works for educational and research purposes. The law states that the reproduction must be used for purposes such as, “criticism, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.”

Courts consider four factors when determining if “Fair Use” applies. These include:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used about the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Public Domain

Public domain applies to tangible works that have no exclusive intellectual property rights. These works include rights that have expired (Shakespeare), been forfeited, expressly waived, or are inapplicable. For example, images posted on Pixabay are public domain because the direct copyright has been waived.

In the U.S., every book and tale written before 1923 is in the public domain. Project Gutenberg has electronic versions of over 57,000 public domain books that are in the public domain.

Creative Commons has a human-readable summary of the legal code at their website to help you understand how people can waive their right to copyright of an image to the public domain.

Copyright Protection in Other Countries

Unfortunately, there isn’t anything such as “international copyright,” even for websites. Protection against unauthorized use of your material depends on the national laws of that country. Luckily, international copyright treaties and conventions have greatly simplified the protection offered to foreign works by most countries. See the International Copyright Relations of the United States for a list of countries that do honor U.S. copyright requests.

What is an ISBN?

Look on the back of any printed book that you have purchased lately. See that barcode with a number on the back? That is the ISBN that helps to identify the book and the publisher.

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a serial number that makes your book unique. It identifies the book itself and the publisher. Most bookstores require ISBN numbers. Either you or the publisher requests the ISBN from Bowker.

If you use a program such as Amazon’s CreateSpace, and you only plan on using them to distribute your book, you can use their ISBN generator to create one. However, if you plan on selling it anywhere else, purchase it separately.

If you are a self-publisher, I would highly recommend using Bowker. That gives you control over your product so that if you plan on selling it elsewhere down the road, you can do so.

Next, purchase the barcode for the back of the book. Use Bowker’s barcode generator once you purchase your ISBN and have your set price.

Bowker has available services for self-publishers at their website.

What is an LLCN? (Optional)

Every print publication obtained by the Library of Congress is given a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN). It’s best for publishers to apply for an LCCN before the book goes to print. One caveat is that an ISBN must be assigned to the publication before submission. After publication, the publisher would then send a copy of the book to the Library of Congress. LCCN requests are free.

The Library of Congress has two programs which assign control numbers: The Catalog in Publication (CIP) Program and the Pre-Assigned Control Number (PCN) program.

  • The PCN program is open to small presses and self-publishers.
  • Apply for the PCN number before the publication.
  • eBooks are not part of the PCN program; this includes non-printed Kindle books. A print version must be available.
  • The CIP Program is only open to larger, pre-approved publishers. So, if you are self-publishing, do not even bother trying to apply for the CIP.

Go to to create a new account and obtain a number.

Copyright, ISBN, and LCCN Basics for Writers