Independence Day is a great time for Americans to take a moment and reflect on the laws that allow us to freely explore our creative potential—and then publish what we’ve written!
The freedom to write what we want without censorship (and to read what we want) has a long, conflicted history, with plenty of gray areas that the courts are still sorting out. We’re not legal experts, but generally speaking, here’s how your rights as a writer are currently protected by U.S. law.
Writer’s Relief Explains How Copyright Law Protects Your Writing
Remember the old rumor that if you mailed a copy of your manuscript to yourself but didn’t open it, it would be copyright protected? The truth is, that’s totally unnecessary.
According to modern copyright law, your writing is actually copyrighted the moment you put the words down on paper (or type them with your keyboard). You don’t even need to use the copyright symbol. Once you write something, it’s yours—with or without the ©. That said, the copyright symbol can be a powerful deterrent to plagiarists.
As for registering your work with the Library of Congress, you don’t need to formally register a work if all you want is basic copyright protection—that’s already yours just for writing the words. But if you plan to publish or share your writing in any form, there are legal benefits for official registration. A copyright registration provides a formally copyrighted date, which can be helpful in plagiarism suits.
How Freedom Of Speech Law Protects You
Americans are guaranteed the right to Freedom Of Speech by the First Amendment to the Constitution. This gives creative writers the right to explore the subjects and topics they please, within certain constraints.
Thanks to Freedom of Speech laws, writers can engage in parodies and satires. They can write memoirs. Courts tend to side with writers in cases when real people claim to be hurt by depictions of fictional characters. If you don’t usually find yourself agonizing over whether the government will penalize you for the story you’re working on, you can thank Freedom of Speech laws for that.
What’s not protected by the First Amendment? Defamation, libel, and slander (which are fancy terms for passing off lies as true). Hate speech. Supporting terrorism. Inciting violence. Certain kinds of threats. Learn more about what is not protected by the First Amendment.
Free Speech Is Not A Right Everywhere
All over the world, writers are punished for expressing their views, for telling stories that matter, and for investigating uncomfortable truths. To get involved in the fight to make freedom of speech a global phenomenon—and to help pressure governments to pardon individual writers and artists who are currently being imprisoned or harassed—consider supporting PEN International.
Our Legal Caveat
We are not lawyers and do not give advice about legal questions; this article is for information only. Talk with an attorney about all legal issues.
Question: What does freedom of speech mean to you as a writer?