Authors, Pseudonyms, and Copyrights: Does Using a Pen Name Jeopardize Your Legal Claim to Your Book?
Pseudonyms—or pen names—are nothing new; authors have been publishing books under assumed identities for centuries. And according to copyright law, whatever you're calling yourself, you automatically own the copyright to your own book just by having written it.
But what happens if you face a situation where you have to legally claim ownership of your intellectual property—in a copyright infringement lawsuit, for instance? If you've been publishing under a pseudonym, how will you prove that pen name is really you?
[Note: The author is not a lawyer, and this article is not intended as a substitute for professional legal advice from someone familiar with your unique situation.]
What does copyright law say about claiming ownership?
According to copyright law:
"Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work." (source: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf)
This sounds simple enough, right? As long as the book has made it past the idea stage and onto paper or screen, the person who wrote it owns it.
Of course, copyright law being a complex and convoluted creature, it's never quite that simple.
Under ideal circumstances, an author can go right along enjoying his or her automatic copyright indefinitely (or, at least, until the copyright has expired). But what happens when someone infringes on your work, and sending a cease and desist letter doesn't do the trick?
Again, copyright law:
"Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of US origin."
There's the kicker: while it's free and automatic to *own* a copyright, *protecting* that ownership is another matter.
What does copyright registration have to do with pseudonyms?
Quite a bit, in fact—depending on what you're actually trying to accomplish by using a pen name.
Pseudonym for a whim
There are many reasons an author might decide to use a pen name for no deeper reason than personal choice. These reasons might include:
- To hide or neutralize the author's true gender from the public in a field perceived to be more welcoming of the opposite sex (such as J.K. Rowling, a gender-ambiguous handle)
- To create a new child-friendly persona (as Theodor Geisel did when he became Dr. Seuss)
- To avoid oversaturating the market between major releases (which, rumor has it, is one reason the prolific Stephen King published as Richard Bachman for several years)
Copyright registration requires certain information about the author and the owner, and this information is a matter of public record. But an author publishing under a pseudonym for any of these reasons may not have a need for complete security, especially pen names used by children's authors.
For many authors, the fact that anyone can access their copyright records and learn their real identities is not a cause for concern and may even be a welcome benefit. (It's difficult to agree to movie treatments when producers don't know who to ask!)
The copyright registration process makes it easy for an author to provide a pseudonym in conjunction with his or her legal name—and, of course, the copyright certificate is all the official proof the courts might require of the author's connection to both pseudonym and intellectual property.
Pseudonym for security
Of course, other authors may have very different reasons for using pen names, reasons that do require publication to take place in absolute secrecy. Two might be:
- To publish political material without fear of government retaliation, especially in totalitarian countries
- To keep opponents of controversial issues from seeking out and harassing an author's family
In these cases, obviously, creating a public record connecting the author's real name to the work would defeat the pseudonym's entire purpose. When security is an issue, further obfuscation is required.
It's perfectly legal for an author to register a copyright under a pen name without revealing his or her true identity—but this brings us back to our previous question: How can legal ownership be proved if the author's true legal name doesn't appear on the copyright registration?
The bottom line: There are a number of ways to prove the use of a pseudonym, but they are external to the copyright process itself. In these cases, it's important to speak to a lawyer about drawing up the necessary paperwork that connects your name to your pseudonym so that your connection to your pseudonym is legal and undeniable.
Guest post by Sarah Kolb-Williams, a book editor, writer, and copyright specialist. She blogs about intellectual property protection for authors and other creative professionals at http://www.clickandcopyright.com/blog.