Copyrighting creative writing, slogans, coined terms?

I was wondering the steps and cost of copyrighting written material, especially online. I’ve looked some stuff up but it seems pretty confusing and I get varying prices from $6.50 to $35.00. It may be an urban myth but someone told me to send the material back to myself by certified mail and then never open it. Will this work?

There’s no cost involved to copyright your own work, the copyright exists the instant you write it down/record it.

What I think you’re asking is establishing a way of proving that you wrote something down/recorded it when you said you did.

I have a musician friend who employs the “Send a Registered Letter to yourself and never open it” thing as a way of establishing when he wrote/recorded a particular song, but I can’t comment as to the legal effectiveness or usefulness of the practice.

The U.S. Copyright office says it offers you no additional protection for your copyright:

The situation is quite different here in Australia; there is no formal system of copyright registration and you don’t even need to publish something to own the copyright on it.

There’s a very informative page on the subject here; and from reading that it seems that the “Registered-Letter-Addressed-To-Yourself” thing might work in Australia. (The usual “I’m not a Lawyer, This is not Legal Advice, etc” disclaimers apply, of course.)

Slogans and coined terms (and other short phrases) can’t be copyrighted anyway.

How do I copyright a name, title, slogan or logo?

In regards to copyrighting creative work on a website, the US Copyright Office says:
Can I copyright my website?

Link to the aforementioned Circular 66 (Warning: PDF)

As previously mentioned, you do not need to do or pay anything to copyright your work, it is automatically copyrighted as soon as you create it. You would need to pay to register your copyright, which would, among other things, make it easier for you to prove you own the copyright and allows you to sue for infringement if someone violates your copyright. Also, if you register before you are infringed (or within 3 months of creation, if that is later), you can sue for statutory damages and attorney’s fees, in addition to actual damages.

I know of no court case in all history that allowed poor man’s copyright into court and validated it as proof. Save your postage.

Registering copyright gets you two crucial levers to use in court: statutory damages and attorney’s fees. Statutory damages can get you up to $150,000 per work. Without registration you can only get actual damages. That means you don’t get any compensation for what you might have made if someone hadn’t stolen it. And attorney’s fees are great because they can mount quickly.

The cost of registration is $35 online and $45 in paper. I believe you can still list a number of works in a single registration form, anything done that quarter.

You can probably not copyright slogans or coined terms. Short or common terms or names are generally not copyrightable. You may be able to trademark them, but only if you have an actual product that will use them. Trademarks are more expensive than copyrights.

You need to ask yourself what you are planning to do with these slogans, etc, that makes it worth spending money protecting them. Do you honestly think that someone will rip you off? For what purpose? What will you use them for yourself? Will they be making your money? You’re essentially entering the world of business here and the trade-offs suddenly take on real monetary meaning.

Fear Itself’s linked page provides most of what you need to know about copyright. For instance, you probably will not be able to copyright the slogans or coined terms you mention in the title.

(Emphasis and addition mine.)

The fee for most registrations, using the new online system, seems to be $35.

However, unless you seriously expect to have to sue someone for violating your copyright (something most producers of “creative writing” probably have little need to fear, IMHO), there is probably little reason to bother registering. The main benefit registration provides is that

I publish a business newsletter and I faithfully register every issue because if I discover any of my subscribers making illegal copies, I can threaten to sue and, if successful, can collect up to $150,000 for each violation. Without that the threat of that penalty I would have no leverage against potential infringers. This is important protection for my business.

An amateur creative writer probably does not have the same likelihood of infringement, nor is the possible harm as likely to justify a lawsuit.

But if you’ll tell us what you want to copyright, we can give you more precise info about whether and how to register.

On preview: Damn you, Exapno and Kat!

But not me? sniffs

Oversight corrected. :smiley:

Thanks for the great info

I guess what I’m looking at are things like “The No Spin Zone”/“Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!” type of a thing. If you coin an orgininal catch phrase that nobody could use unless they paid you money.

Also, bumper stick type things like: American needs politicians like a hooker needs a used rubber.

Conservative/Liberal news is just like journalism, only different.

Somebody gets paid and owns the rights to the bumper sticker slogans, I assume. That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for.

These examples are almost certainly trademark-able, but not copyrightable, since they are short phrases used to identify a particular product or service. A trademark does not allow you to make money on other people’s use of the phrase. It allows you to prevent other people from using it in connection with their business, if they are in a business similar to yours.

If you have actually created an original saying like this (not merely appropriated one that has been circulating in the public sphere), you can copyright it and sell items emblazoned with it. But your ability to go after people who use it without your permission will be hampered by the following factors:

  1. Let’s face it, you probably won’t create the next earth-shattering, worldwide craze.

  2. Whatever you do will therefore probably not attract the attention of thousands of imitators and infringers.

  3. To the extent you do, the infringers will probably be small-time operators who will be hard to track down and sue, and who will probably have few resources worth going after.

  4. If you’re really unlucky, and some big company infringes your copyright, they could use their deep pockets to tie you up in court and make it too expensive for you to defend your valid rights.

All this means that, although you should definitely copyright your phrases, and include a copyright statement on your merchandise, don’t imagine that you’re going to make millions just by coming up with a clever phrase and selling it to a lot of people, or suing everyone who uses it without your permission. The world doesn’t work that way.

However, there is at least one precedent of someone successfully suing in such a case.

I’m afraid I can’t bring the details to mind right now, but a guy* who for years has written thousands of such brief humorous sayings, and printed them on cards, sued (I think) for using one of them on their posters. I believe that Despair (or whoever) didn’t know he had written it, and thought it was just one of those anonymous catch phrases. He was able to show that he had originated it and registered the copyright for it.

But I wouldn’t take this unusual case as the basis for a business model. If you want to sell bumper stickers and t-shirts with clever sayings on them, go ahead. And do register the copyrights. Just don’t expect to become rich and famous doing it.

  • It may have been Jack Handey (who is a real person BTW, not a creation of SNL), but I don’t think so. Some Doper will come along in five minutes with the guy’s name.

Ashleigh Brilliant. Who won for trademark violation, not copyright infringement.

Copyrighting short phrases is not going to fly. You might also want to note that the copyright office is running 5-8 months behind in registrations, so it will be a half year before you even know you’ve been turned down. Not a good business model.

Thanks, Exapno. I knew someone would remember it. (I am a bit disappointed that it took you a full hour, though. :smiley: )

You didn’t look far enough, though. Brilliant did win a 1979 copyright infringement case, Brilliant v. W.B. Productions Inc. Here’s the 1992 *Wall Street Journal *article about him and his his legal battles, from Brilliant’s own site. That’s the case I was trying to remember.

So jakesteele, if you can get a judge to rule that your short phrases are epigrams, you can sue for a few hundred bucks or so, too.

Huh? Are you claiming the Copyright Office evaluates and rejects some copyright applications the way the Patent and Trademark Office does? If so, I’ve never heard about it. I thought they merely register whatever is sent in to them.

Brilliant was obviously registering his “short phrases” even before a judge ruled them to be epigrams. He wouldn’t have had a case if the Copyright Office had been passing judgment on them, and not simply registering them as submitted.

Do you have any information on their evaluation process, beyond what they define as copyrightable?

It took ten seconds. (One to remember his name and nine to look up the spelling.) Doesn’t everybody know Ashleigh Brilliant? :slight_smile:

You got me on the older copyright cases, though. It does make me wonder whether he’s still winning new cases or whether the changes wrought by the big 1986 revision in copyright hurt him.

The article says he won because a judge ruled them to be epigrams rather than short phrases. Short phrases apparently are still not copyrightable.

I don’t know whether the copyright office specifically screens registrations or whether they just lose in count if they cover a non-copyrightable entry. It seems logical to me that the process includes scrutiny of the forms, but maybe not. Examples like “The No Spin Zone” are obviously not epigrams, but some bumper stickers approach that length.

Mostly what it proves is that if you want to run a real business, hire a knowledgeable lawyer and don’t depend on a message board to parse federal law. :slight_smile:

One second! Wow. My brain used to work that fast. I knew Ashley Brilliant, I just couldn’t remember his name. It might have come to me in a day or two.

Maybe I should try registering phrases of decreasing length to see what happens. I’ll start with a 100-word entry, which should certainly pass muster, and work my way down to one word, which in honor of our inspiration, will be “brilliant.” Then we can find out where they draw the line, and how.

Would anyone care to provide me a grant of $3,500 to conduct this experiment? I’ll report the results in about six months.