Publication (P…P…P)

In publishing and copyright, the word “publication” has special meaning.

U.S. Copyright law gives special rights and protections to the creators of covered creative works. The rights apply to published and unpublished works of authorship, but additional legal protections kick in when a work reaches published status.

That makes it important to understand what the law means by “publication.”

The U.S. Copyright Act defines publication as:

“…the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.” – 17 U.S.C. 101

In plain English: a work is published, for copyright purposes, when copies are produced and distributed or offered for sale to the public.

Posting a work on the Internet – for example, on a blog, constitutes publication for copyright purposes. The blog post is “fixed” in a tangible medium (websites qualify under the copyright law, despite the ephemeral nature of the Internet) and distributed to the public.

Note that “sale” is not a mandatory element of publication – a work can be published for copyright purposes even when it is given away for free. The key is distribution. That distribution can be accomplished by sales, as in the case of printed novels, or by “rental” (think libraries and textbook rental services) or “lending.” Blogs fall within the “lending” area – you are lending your content to others to read for a period of time.

This becomes even more clear in the International Universal Copyright Convention, where Article VI defines publication as:

“the reproduction in tangible form and the general distribution to the public of copies of a work from which it can be read or otherwise visually perceived.” -Universal Copyright Convention, Article VI.

As in the U.S. Copyright act, the copies merely need to be distributed and available for viewing. They do not have to be sold.

The right to publish a creative work is owned exclusively by the copyright holder (in the case of novels and blog posts, that’s almost always the author).

A publishing contract represents a transfer of the right to publish from the author/copyright holder to the publishing house.

This exclusive right to control publication is one of the most important and valuable rights created and protected by copyright law. It’s also one most authors spend little time considering and understand only vaguely (if at all). While authors don’t have to understand copyright at a lawyer’s level to navigate the waters of a publishing career, it makes sense to acquire at least enough knowledge to know how to protect those all-important rights.

Remember: copyright law protects both published and unpublished works. It is illegal (copyright infringement) to reproduce even unpublished works without the copyright holder’s permission.

This is the “P” entry for the April A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. Tune in tomorrow for Q – which most authors will have already guessed means query letters in publishing legalese.