We spent the weekend at the L.A. Times Festival of Books having some wonderful conversations about books. One of the topics authors seemed most interested in was who controlled the rights to their books. Great question!
Copyright is what often comes to mind first. The U.S. Copyright Office says, “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” Should you register that copyright? The Copyright Office explains, “In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.” The so-called “Poor Man’s Copyright” in which you mail a copy of your work to yourself may establish the fact that you created the work, but does not provide legal protection. The Copyright Office explains, “There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”
A concern which is in many ways more important is also one most self publishing authors don’t understand. It related to their books ISBN number. R.W. Bowker handles the business of issuing ISBN numbers which it describes as “… the global standard for identifying titles ISBNs are used world-wide as a unique identifier for books. They are used to simplify distribution and purchase of books throughout the global supply chain.” An individual ISBN number can be purchased for $125. The problem arises when companies catering to self publishers offer a free ISBN number as part of a publishing package. The ISBN the company provides is an identifier that ties it to the company which retains rights to the book. The author may have a copyright to the content, but she can’t ask for the files to her book and take them to another printer or publisher if she is dissatisfied with the service she receives from the company which provided the ISBN.A self publishing author is always best served to purchase her own ISBN number from Bowker. This assures that rights to the book are in her hands.
For a much more detailed review of publishing rights I recommend Mark Levine’s excellent book The Fine Print of Self Publishing.