Writing Success Resource Center

Copyright 101 for Freelance Writers

by Jonathan Bailey

As freelance writers, you earn your living creating, selling and editing copyrighted worked. As such, copyright law is, quite literally, the law that governs your business and is perhaps the single most important area of the law for any freelance writer to understand.

However, so many freelance writers either haven’t learned about copyright law or have been fed bad information about it. Many unwittingly sign away their rights in their work or, worse yet, fail to enforce rights that they have because they don’t know that they are there.

As the author of Plagiarism Today and a full-time copyright and plagiarism consultant, I find this trend especially worrisome as the freelance writing sector gets increasingly competitive, leading some writers to take advantage of colleagues or some customers into bullying writers under their employ.

To help with this, I’ve created this guide as a very basic primer on copyright law including what your rights are and how to enforce them.

Bear in mind that this is not meant to be a thorough or complete overview of copyright and, in many areas, additional research is definitely recommended. However, it is designed to give a quick overview of the issues, making you aware of your rights so you don’t lose them or fail to protect them.

What Kinds of Work Does Copyright Protect?

According to the U.S. Copyright Office (PDF), copyright protects “original works of authorship” including, among other categories, literary, artistic, musical, audiovisual and dramatic works. Any work that has a requisite level of creativity and can be fixed into a tangible medium of expression, such as being saved on a computer or printed on a piece of paper, can be protected.

Ideas can not be copyright protected, only their expression, as they can not be fixed into a tangible medium. Likewise, titles can not be copyright protected as they are generally viewed as being too short to qualify. Furthermore, facts and information can not be copyright protected they are not considered adequately creative though the exact expression of that information may be.

For freelance writers though, it is important to know that all of their creations fall under the category of a “literary” work and qualify for copyright protection.

When Does Copyright Apply?

Copyright in a work applies the moment it is fixed into a tangible medium of expression. So once a work is saved to a hard drive, scrawled on a piece of paper or painted onto a canvas, it is considered protected.

A work does not need to bear a copyright notice or be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to be protected, though there are benefits to both.

How Long Does a Copyright Last?

http://www.copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfmFor works created since 1979, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years in the case of works of individual authorship. For works of corporate authorship, the term is the shorter of 95 years from first publication or 120 years from creation.

Once the time limit on a work has expired, the work is considered to be in the public domain and has no copyright protection.

What Rights Does Copyright Grant?

Copyright grants the copyright holder, in most cases the author, a set of exclusive rights in their work, including the following:

To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;

• To prepare derivative works based upon the work;

• To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or

other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

• To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and

choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual


• To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and

choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural

works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual

work; and

• In the case of sound recordings,* to perform the work publicly by means of

a digital audio transmission.

  • To reproduce the work
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • To distribute copies of the work
  • To perform the work publicly
  • To display the work publicly

These are all rights that are exclusive to the copyright holder meaning almost any use of the copyrighted work that involves any of these activities requires approval. Failure to get such approval means that the use is, most likely, a copyright infringement.

Who is the Copyright Holder?

In most cases, the copyright holder is the author or creator of the work. However, the copyright can revert to an employer in cases where the work is considered a “Work For Hire”.

This can happen one of two ways:

  1. The work was created by an employee under the scope of his/her employment
  2. The work was contracted to be a work for hire and is one of the following types of work: A contribution to a collective work, a part of an audiovisual work, a translation, a supplementary work, a compilation, an instructional text, a test, answer material for a test or an atlas.

Since freelancers are, by their very nature, not employees, unless they both signed a contract stating it to be a work for hire AND the work is one of the qualifying types, the freelance writer usually holds copyright in the work even if they sold it to a third party to use.

That being said, clients of freelancers are assumed to have certain rights to exploit a work, including display it in the intended manner, and can contract themselves an exclusive license to do so in their agreement, making it so that the work can not be resold.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement is when a third party takes advantage of one or more of the exclusive rights owned by the copyright holder without permission. As per the list above, there is actually many ways one can infringe copyright but the most common is to make unlawful copies of a protected work.

What is the Punishment for Copyright Infringement?

Punishment for copyright infringement has two different tracks, civil and criminal.

Civil copyright infringement cases are much common and the damages depend on many variables. In cases where the infringed party is eligible for statutory damages, they can receive anywhere between $200 – $150,000 per infringement. It depends heavily on the nature of the infringement and whether it was willful, which has a damage range between $750 – $150,000 or unintentional, which has a range between $200 – $30,000.

The exact damages awarded is largely at the discretion of the judge and/or jury and varies wildly from case to case.

Criminal copyright infringement cases are much more rare and usually center around large-scale copyright infringements for profit, such as DVD pirates who sell their wares. For infringements to qualify for criminal action, the infringements have to have a “retail value” of $1,000 accrued in 180 days.

Criminal copyright infringement can be punished by up to 10 years in prison depending on the nature of the violation and the court can also hand down fines up to $250,000.

How do I Receive Statutory Damages? / Why File a Copyright Registration?

In the U.S., though copyright is affixed to a work once it is fixed into a tangible medium of expression, enforcing those rights in court is impossible without a copyright registration.

Not only is a copyright registration required to file suit, but filing a registration either prior to the infringement or within three months of publication, you are eligible for statutory damages and attorneys fees. Without such timely registration, you are limited to actual damages, which is the greater of what the infringer made or you lost from the infringement.

How do I Register My Work?

Visit the U.S. Copyright Office Web site and open up the Electronic Copyright Office link. From there, the USCO will walk you through the process.

Please note that a registration costs $35 though you can bundle multiple works into one registration. There is currently a nine-month delay in receiving copyright certificates though the effective date of registration is the date it was submitted, not the date the certificate arrives.

What Can I Do to Protect My Work?

The first step to protecting your work is tracking it and seeing where it is being used. As a writer, you have many different tools at your disposal to do just that.

For static works, such as a set of articles that is not expanded frequently, you can use Google Alerts, along with key phrases from your work, to alert you to when copies of your content appears on the Web. You can also use services such as Copyscape and Plagium to do quick, one-off checks of your work to see if anyone is misusing it.

If you publish a blog or some other content that is regularly updated, such tools are likely not practical. For that purpose, Fairshare is a much better tool as it parses your RSS feed and gives you a new feed to subscribe to that alerts you to duplicate versions of your work, along with related information about the site.

Once you have found unwanted copying of your work, you need to enforce it. Since a lawsuit, in most cases, is not practical, the best approach is to secure removal of the work. You can do this by first sending a cease and desist letter to the infringer and, if that fails, filing a takedown request with the host. You can find stock letters for both on Plagiarism Today as well as a guide on how to stop plagiarism.

How Do I Avoid Becoming an Infringer?

The easiest way to avoid infringing the rights of others is to simply create your own work and not copy the works of others. However, that is not always practical as it often times becomes necessary to use the works of others when creating your own, such as adding images to a blog post.

In those cases, it is best to either ask permission to use the work or obtain a license to use it. For example, Creative Commons Licenses allow others to use the work for various purposes depending on the type of license selected.

However, even if you can not get permission to use the work, you may be able to under fair use though it is best to keep your reliance on fair use to a minimum.

What is Fair Use?

Fair use is an exemption to the rights granted the copyright holder that allows the work to be used in what might ordinarily be an infringing manner.

Contrary to popular believe, there are no hard and fast rules as to what is and is not a fair use and the determination as to whether a use is fair or not comes down to a case-by-case analysis. Providing attribution, only using X number of words or other “rules” do not guarantee that a use will be deemed fair.

  1. The purpose and character of the use: Specifically if it was for profit or non-commercial.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work, especially if it was unpublished.
  3. The amount of the work used
  4. The effect on the potential market the use has

The first and fourth factors are considered the most important though all four are weighed. Decisions on fair use matters vary wildly at times and can depend heavily on the specific court.

Bear in mind that fair use is only a defense to a copyright infringement claim, meaning to prove that a use is a fair one, you first must be sued and then litigate the case to a judgement, a very expensive and time-consuming prospect. This is why relying heavily on fair use is not usually recommended.

Where Can I get More Information?

For more information on copyright, take a look at the following links:

  1. http://copyright.gov/The U.S. Copyright Office – Official website of the U.S. Copyright Office.
  2. Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center – Information on Fair Use and Current Litigation
  3. The Copyright Website – A general overview of copyright law
  4. Plagiarism Today – My site, which is about how to track and stop misuse of your content on the Web
  5. ChillingEffects – A site with several great FAQs about copyright as well as information (positive and negative) on the notice-and-takedown system.

Getting Started in Blogging

Blogging for a living can be a lucrative career choice for those looking to start their own blogs, or to blog for others. As with most forms of writing, it’s not something one can enter into blind. Blogging isn’t only writing, it’s also engaging readers, practicing community management and, also, lots of promotion. If you’re planning on starting your own blog, there are certain things you’ll want to keep in mind before you begin.

Before we get into the tips to help you get started, check out this video featuring inteviews with my friends, professional bloggers Darren Rowse begin_of_the_skype_highlighting     end_of_the_skype_highlighting and Chris Garrett, authors of the best selling ProBlogger book.

Though this video is a promotional video for Darren and Chris’s book, it mostly discusses the benefits of blogging and some things to consider before you begin.

Before You Begin Blogging: Some Things You Should Know

It’s not enough to write a blog post and hope for readers. You, the blogger, has to make it happen. It’s up to you to make sure others are reading your blog and it’s up to you to encourage them to come back again. When you write for a client, your client is the one who deals with issues such as advertising and readers. When you start your own blog, every aspect – down to the editorial calendar – is up to you.

Blogging takes time

Here’s a question for you: What will cause people to visit your blog each and every day?

Answer: Posting content each and every day.

With blogging, you can’t just set it and forget it. Blogging requires a major time commitment.  Not only with creating content, but also with tasks we’ll get into a bit later such as advertising and traffic building. You won’t become a blogging success overnight, perhaps not even in six months time. Many bloggers become successful after years of blogging and engaging readers. While the blogosphere might boast one or two overnight sensations, that kind of fame and success is very rare.

Blogging is not a get rich quick scheme

Ask any blogging expert and they’ll tell you the same thing; it’s better to build traffic and readership before attempting to monetize your blog. This is for several reasons, first and foremost, if no one is visiting your blog, no one will respond to advertising. Also, you can’t properly monetize your blog without knowing the spending habits of your community. It can take months, if not years, before a regular income starts flowing.

Blogging is a lot of work

Blogging involves more than a quick post each day. You’ll want to assess the wants and needs of your readers. You’ll need to install a stats program in order to know how your community is arriving at your blogs and the types of content they best respond to. You’ll also want to investigate search topics, news, trends and evergreen content for your readers. In addition, it takes time to research advertising and other passive income strategies as well as networking and promotion. Most successful bloggers put a full time effort into a single blog.

Here’s a couple of quick tips from ProBlogger Darren Rowse to help you get started:

Choosing a Niche

What will you blog about? The question seems simple enough, but many writers who would like to blog have no idea what to talk about.  a lot goes into choosing a niche. For example, you may be into cooking, but do you know how many food blogs there are out there? Why will your food blog be different and how can you build interest when there are so many established cooking blogs out there? It’s not enough to pick a broad topic, you might have to narrow it down, for example, “gluten free cooking” or “food tips for cancer patients.” You’ll also have to determine if you look your niche enough to write about it ever single day.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a blogging niche:

Areas of Expertise

Here are some questions to ask yourself when choosing a blog niche:

  • What am I good at?
  • What am I really good at?
  • What am I good at that I can teach others about?
  • What am I good at that I can I talk about every day and not get bored?
  • What can I do better or differently than others in this niche?


Passion is a word you’ll hear often in blogging discussions. It may be overused but there’s no other way to describe how to feel about a topic you’ll be discussing every day. If you’re going to focus on growing tomatoes, you best have a passion for tomatoes or you’ll grow tired of talking about them every single day. Not only will you have to blog about tomatoes each day, but you’ll have to answer questions from your community about tomatoes, folks will want to interview you about tomatoes, you’ll end up joining tomato groups, and everywhere you go people will want to talk to you about tomatoes. If you don’t have knowledge or passion for tomatoes your readers will quickly catch on and find a tomato enthusiast who actually knows his stuff.

Choosing a Blog Platform

Most professional bloggers use WordPress.org for their blogs, but it isn’t the only option. There’s Blogger, WordPress.com, TypePad, Moveable Type, Posteous and others. Before you begin blogging, you’ll want to research the various blogging platforms to decide which ones are for you.

Here’s a video by Brian Devine discussing why he feels WordPress is the best platform:

Here is a video about getting started with Blogger:

Here is a video about getting started with WordPress:

The Content

Now that you have decided you want to commit your time to starting a new blog, and you found a blog platform you like best – and know how to use it – you’re ready to get started. There’s an expression among bloggers and other online content purveyors, “content is king.” This means you can use SEO, you can use marketing tactics, you can use prizes, giveaways and shameless self promotion, but in the end it’s the content that will keep people coming to your blog. Thus it’s important to write content that will appeal to readers not only this moment, but in years to come.

Evergreen Content: Evergreen content is content that is just as relevant five years from now as it is today. It’s the stuff people will always want to know about. It can be how to’s, tips, hints, tricks and anything else folks will want to know about succeeding in the niche. Evergreen content might not get huge hits at first but it continues to bring in traffic over time, which is what you want.

Linkbait: Linkbait is content designed to shock, awe and bring in tons of social media and search traffic.  Linkbait can be list posts such as “Top 10” lists or a controversial topic that will bring in train wreck traffic. While this is good for a one or two day boost in traffic, keep in mind that linknbait never lasts long.

News: Your readers will want to discuss the news and trends shaking the niche. Again, this isn’t the content that will always bring in traffic but it will help to establish you as an authority and help to stimulate discussion among your readers.

Fun stuff: Humor, puzzles, games, contests and other distractions keep the procrastination crowd coming to your blog. No one likes to be all business all the time.

A good mix of evergreen content, news, humor and linkbait is sure to drive traffic to your blog and keep folks coming back for more.

Engaging Your Readers

It’s not enough to bring in traffic. The purpose of blogging is to build community and create discussion topics. Give your readers something to talk about in the comments section of the blog. You can do this by asking questions and writing the type of content that people will have an opinion about. Don’t write an antiseptic article. This isn’t the Associated Press, so you don’t have to be stuffy. Instead, let your personality shine through. Don’t be afraid to write like you speak. You’ll find your community trusts you more when you act like yourself instead of what you think everyone feels you should be.

Bringing in Traffic

This portion of our tutorial originally appeared at About.com Weblogs (and written by Yours Truly).

So now that you have a blog, how will you bring in traffic?

Unless you prefer to keep your blog private, you’re probably blogging in hopes of reaching people. Bloggers who are just starting out may find it takes time to get the word out. Promoting a blog isn’t for the shy. If you want to bring in the masses, you’re going to have perform a little shameless self promotion. What follows are some tips for bringing ‘em in.

Content is King but Good Content Rules

First and foremost, you can encourage millions of people to visit your blog, but the numbers won’t mean squat if you don’t keep them coming back for more. You’ll need to provide content. It’s not enough to provide the same news as every other blogger in your niche topic. You’ll have to come up with something new and unique and provide thought provoking analysis. Your blog has to say something and say it well. If you have good, solid content, people will come – and return.

Participate in Like-Minded Forums

Even if you’re not a joiner, it pays to visit forums so others in your niche know about your blog. If your blog is about knitting, visit some knitting and craft forums. If your blog is about earthworms, visit earthworm, soil and gardening forums. You don’t have to post a lot of “hey come visit my blog” type comments, but if you add a link to your blog in your signature, it will appear in every post. This is sure to bring in traffic.

Visit Other Blogs

Search for other blogs falling within your niche and pay them a visit. Be sure comment so they’ll visit your blog too. If you have something interesting to say about your topic, others may link to and even discuss your blog.

Add Links

Not only is it important to add relevant blog links to your blogroll, but you’ll also want to link to other blogs in your post. The blogger on the other end of the link might just reciprocate, leading more traffic to your blog.

Install an RSS Button

Make it easy for others to subscribe to your blog by installing an button.

Submit Your Blog Posts to Social Media and Bookmarking Sites

Digg, Reddit and Stumble Upon are just a few of the social media and bookmarking sites available online. At these sites, members submit articles and blog posts they find interesting and members vote. If your piece gets lots of Diggs and Stumbles, you can receive tens of thousands of visitors in a single day. Mind you, not all of that traffic will stay, but some will. Others will link to your blog and building backlinks is important for search engine placement.

Read Up on the Latest Traffic Building Techniques

If you’re really serious about blogging, visit blogs about blogs. The top blog bloggers offer great traffic building tips in addition to other helpful information.

Analyze Your Stats

In addition to the above steps, you’ll want to implement a stat tracking service such as Site Meter or Performancing Metrics keep track of hits and traffic. Your stat tracker will not only let you know how many people are stopping by each day, but they’ll also let you know where everyone is coming from. This will enable you to determine which traffic boosting methods work best for you. Your stat trackers will tell you what keywords your readers use to visit your site and what the other bloggers are saying.


When it comes to blogging, patience is indeed a virtue. Traffic doesn’t happen over night. But if you keep at it, continue to provide quality content and promote the heck out of it on a regular basis, you’re sure to slowly but surely build up traffic.

Updated to Add:

The above was written before Facebook and Twitter were household names. Promotion on both social networks have significantly increased this blog’s traffic. By creating a Facebook group and attaching your blogs feed, plus engaging your group with interesting questions and news items, you’ll drive traffic to your blog. Also, engaging with your community on Twitter will also help to increase your blog’s awareness. Don’t spam. Instead, create a conversation with your friends and followers, with occasional links.

Monetizing a Blog

If there’s one thing I learned in four years of FWJ, it’s that if you don’t know a thing about your community’s habits, you won’t be able to monetize your blogs. For instance, most of the freelance writing community are “clickers” not “buyers”. Putting up affiliate ads for products and services doesn’t work. However, many pay per click ads work or job search tools that pay me for each sign up also do OK. Truth be told, the bulk of FWJ’s income comes from Google Adsense. That doesn’t mean Adsense is the best source of revenue for you, however.

I didn’t learn all this right away, however. It took years of trial and error. I tried to sell books, writing products, magazine subscriptions and other items of interest of writers but no one was buying. Now I use a combination of job affiliates, pay per click and text link sales.

Sell Products on Product-Oriented Blogs Only

If you’re wishing to monetize your blog, your going to have to research your demographics and your community’s habits. For instance, if you have a food blog, folks might be ok with affiliate products for cooking stuff. If you have tech blog, selling gadgets may work well in your favor. A poetry or history blog might not do so well with product sales though.

Analyze Your Traffic

Many times bloggers will start a blog and immediately put up ads only to wonder why no one is buying. Give it some time and use your stats to analyze your traffic first. After traffic is flowing, figure out where folks are coming from. Learn what they’re talking about and what their interests are. Engage them in conversation. Learn which posts get the most comments, back links and traffic. Once you know your readers’ habits, you’re ready to monetize your blog.

It Takes Time

Finally, know that it takes time for a blog to bring in income. If I use FWJ as a case in point, I earned pennies at first. After several months, I was earning between $20 and $50 per month. It took two years of steady traffic building for me to earn $100 or more each month in revenue. Now, four years later, I’m earning over $1,000 a month. Of course, much of that goes to the maintenance and content for this blog, but that’s for another post. My point is, many bloggers make the same mistake. They start a blog, throw up a few random ads, and throw in the towel a few months later when the money isn’t flowing. Taking the time to do it right makes all the difference in the world.

Interview with Chris Garrett

Professional blogger Chris Garrett took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about blogging for us:

First, tell us about your background. How did you get started blogging?

It feels like I have been blogging, or at least writing online, forever. It’s been something I have done continuously for around 16 years. I first started with web stuff right as it was beginning to take off in the early 90’s. I was a techy at a local college and had to set up our internet stuff, leased line, website, all that. We were basically an ISP for the local schools, libraries. Back then everyone who got online had a personal homepage and email address through their ISP. My blogging pretty much started there. In the mid-90’s I had a science fiction site where I would write about TV shows like Dr Who and Red Dwarf, later when I changed job and started in my first internet consultancy role I started an online diary. A couple of years on, around 2000, I would write programming articles.

What was your “aha!” moment? How did you know this was the life for you?

Well those programming articles were originally intended to save me from repeating myself on the discussion lists and forums, and also to document stuff I might need to do again in future. What happened though was people would offer me work, or contracts. They were saying “We saw your article about x, can you show us how to do it?” or “Help! How much for you to fix this for us?”. It was accidental monetization you could say!

Chris, what is the first thing you recommend anyone do before getting started as a blogger?

Have a good think about why you want to be a blogger and who you are going to be blogging for. A personal diary can be fine without an intended market, but anything where you want to make a difference or make money really requires a target audience.

Very few bloggers “make it” over night. What goes into starting and maintaining a successful blog?

As well as a well defined target market, you need tenacity and you need to make a lot of friends. It’s almost impossible now to do it solo and without being strategic. Of course random overnight successes do happen, but all the overnight successes I know took around a decade, in reality, ha.

How do bloggers earn money?

Bloggers earn money either through selling eyeballs (advertising), services (freelancing, consulting) or products (ebooks, merchandise).

How is blogging different from traditional forms of writing?

The biggest difference would be the lack of formality. Bloggers write as if it is an email to a friend, in a casual tone. As a blogger I am writing from me to you. There are fewer hangups about rules, what is proper. It’s more about connecting with an audience and delivering the goods.

Another difference is you can just communicate without too much consideration for journalistic standards and rules. You don’t need to be qualified, certified or accredited, just do it. A popular writer from a UK broadsheet newspaper recently criticised my writing to a client, but I don’t care because I know how little true quality journalists make, despite all their credibility and qualifications! I have no shame in being able to make a living despite writing that would make my English teacher blush, ha.

Why is community so important?
People need people.

What do you feel is the biggest mistake folks make when starting or running a blog?

The most common I would say is giving up too early. Another mistake is thinking it is the path to riches. As far as the biggest is concerned, there are lots of big mistakes but the most frustrating for me is seeing people lack originality. They have so much to offer but they see people like Darren from Problogger and John Chow make a lot of money writing about making money online so they start a make money online blog, even though they have yet to make a dollar.

What are a blogger’s most important tools?

Sweat, Passion, and dedication. The technical stuff is all secondary to the tool between your ears.

Do you have any favorite resources to recommend?

To learn about this stuff in general, check out Problogger.net and the Problogger Book.

The biggest boosts to my traffic and subscribers have been through guest posting, so take a look at my http://guestposting.info Guest Posting Workbook.

We often hear about the need for passion when blogging a particular niche. Why passion? Isn’t it enough to like or be knowledgeable about a niche?

Only you can answer that. It is a personal thing.

My point of view is you should find a topic that you can’t stop talking about, and would write about for the long haul even if it *cost* you money, let alone never made you any. Blogging long term is hard and if you lose your enthusiasm then you are creating a chore for yourself. Now, of course, people scrub toilets and other chores for money, it is considered honest work for honest pay, but if I wanted a job I wouldn’t be doing this.

Another aspect is *people can tell*. We all have a built in BS detector that is pretty good at spotting people who are “faking it to make it”. You can tell when someone is truly enthusiastic or is phoning it in. Good luck getting traction if people can tell you are bored with your topic.

You can make money from things you are not interested in, but most of us would not be excited to get up each morning with that facing us. I had sites about generating leads for lawyers, credit cards, all kinds of dull topics. Funnily enough, even though there was money in it, I don’t maintain them any longer.

Give us your most important tip for aspiring bloggers.

Get out of your head and think like your audience. What drives them? What are their wants, needs and desires? How can you help them find a solution? Create something useful, original, cool and people will reward you.

Thanks Chris, is there anything else you’d like to share that will help writers get started as bloggers, that we might not have already covered?

If I had to start over there would be two things I would be focusing on; creating standout content and partnering. On my blog there are two free ebooks about how to do both of those things.

Think You Have What it Takes?

What are you waiting for? It’s time to get started blogging!

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