Let's see what John's contract has to say:
Copyright. Copyright in and to the Work belongs to the Author solely and exclusively. Publisher will register the copyright in the Work with the United States Copyright Office, in Author's sole name, within three (3) months after initial publication of the Work, and Author hereby authorizes Publisher to make such registration on Author's behalf. Publisher will print a copyright notice, in the form authorized under U.S. law, in all copies of the Work printed and/or distributed by Publisher pursuant to this Agreement.
Finally, a simple one!
This paragraph has three operative provisions, none of which present an issue for John:
1. John (the Author) - and John alone - owns the copyright to the Work. It's nice to have a straightforward statement of copyright ownership, to ensure that everyone knows who owns the work.
2. The Publisher will register John's copyright with the U.S. Copyright office within 3 months after initial publication of the Work. This means the Publisher will handle the copyright filing and pay the filing fee (it's minimal, but it's nice to have someone else take care of this formality).
Registration with the copyright office is not required to establish or create a copyright in creative works, but registration is required in order to recover certain statutory damages for copyright infringement. (In English: You don't have to register your work to own a copyright in it. However, you get a lot more money, and the right to recover attorney fees, and some other benefits, if you do formally register your copyright.)
3. The Publisher will print a copyright notice in all copies of the Work printed and/or distributed under the contract. This means the books will contain a notice similar to: "Copyright (c) 2013, John Q. Penman."
This is a fairly standard copyright paragraph. As an author, you should look for a paragraph containing all three of these features in any publishing contract you're asked to sign. Some smaller publishers may expect the author to register the copyright - and although most traditional publishers handle the copyright registration, that alone isn't necessarily a reason to lose the deal.
That said, any contract that attempts to transfer copyright ownership to the publisher (in part or in whole) is inappropriate and not something an author should sign.
Do you have questions about copyright or copyright ownership? Feel free to ask in the questions!
Posted by Susan Spann
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books, July 16, 2013), the first novel in the Shinobi Mystery series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori.