Pen names, or pseudonyms, are common in the book publishing arena, as well as blogs and other online publications. But how does using a pseudonym or pen name affect your copyright registration? Let’s take a closer look at pseudonyms and copyright law.
Why would anyone want to use a pen name?
There are many reasons someone might use a pen name or pseudonym and wish to record this in their copyright registration:
Authors publishing potentially controversial materials may wish to keep their identity a secret in order to protect their families, escape government persecution or retaliation, or hide their part-time-author status from their full-time employer.
Much more prevalent in the closed-minded gender attitudes of the past, many women throughout history have adopted male pseudonyms in order to be taken seriously as authors in male-dominated fields (which of course for much of our history was pretty much all of them).
Sometimes an author publishes under a pseudonym simply because they like the sound of the name more than their own legal name! This is especially popular for children’s books; authors sometimes want to be known as a more fun-to-say name among this demographic.
If an author is established in one certain genre, such as science fiction, that author might not want his or her reputation to follow them into another genre and may wish to build an entirely new one. A pseudonym is a great way to separate styles of writing into distinct “personalities” for use in different arenas.
How do I register a copyright with my pseudonym or pen name?
This depends on your reasons for writing under a pseudonym in the first place—namely, whether you want to keep your real name secret or not.
Copyrighting Under a Pen Name: Keeping Your Identity Secret
If you’re copyrighting under a pen name in order to avoid persecution for criticizing your government, you probably don’t want your real name listed in the publicly available copyright records. Here’s how to accomplish this.
- Leave the author section blank. If you provide a name here, it will remain on file with the Copyright Office and cannot be removed at a later date; simply do not insert your legal name when prompted for the author of the book.
- Check “pseudonym” and insert your pen name in the pseudonym field.
- Insert the pseudonym as the claimant (or owner) rather than your legal name.
- Do not provide any personally identifying information for the “public contact information” field. It’s generally a good idea to still provide some sort of information so that the US Copyright Office’s database can act as a directory for anyone needing to contact you, but if you don’t want to give out your real name here, you can provide the pseudonym, an email address, and a PO box (or no mailing address at all).
There are other fields in which to insert contact information, but one of these is strictly for correspondence with the Copyright Office and one is the person to whom the Copyright Certificate should be mailed. Neither of these sections of your copyright application will be made public.
Note: Once you’ve registered your copyright under your pen name and covered all of your tracks, it’s up to you to determine how you’re going to prove your copyright ownership to the courts, if should ever become necessary; if someone steals your work and publishes it as their own, how will you prove to them it’s not? Unless you’ve legally connected your legal name with your pen name, such as with a fictitious name filing, it’s going to be difficult to prove ownership.
Note: Most copyright registrations expire 70 years after the death of the author. With a secret pseudonym copyright registration, since there is no real person acting as author, the copyright term is good for either 95 years after first publication, or 120 years from creation—whichever is earlier.
Copyrighting Under a Pen Name: Using Your Pseudonym and Legal Name
Not all authors need to (or want to) keep their true identity on lock-down. For example, a children’s author who just wanted to create a fun author identity for the benefit of her audience probably doesn’t mind if those children’s parents are able to find out who she really is.
Or, if a pen name is used because of an industry or genre crossover so that the author’s real name isn’t used in promotional materials and marketing to avoid confusion, that doesn’t necessarily mean the author is actively keeping it a secret.Here’s how to register a copyright to reflect the pen name or pseudonym printed on your book covers, but also keeping your legal name connected to the records.
- Put your legal name down as author. This will be public record.
- Check “pseudonym” and insert the pen name you’re using.
- Put your legal name down as claimant. This will also be public record.
- Continue filing your application like normal. Your public records, once filed, will now reflect that the copyright is owned by you, listing your legal name, but that you use a specified pen name or pseudonym.
Again, it’s always a good idea to provide public contact information; this does not necessarily have to be your home address. Many authors provide a PO box or mail center address for the public contact information section so as not to create a searchable record of their copyright that list their family’s home.
Registering the copyright
For $35 ($45 if you’re submitting your application through the mail), you can send your work electronically to the US Copyright Office. While the date of copyright registration is effective the date the Copyright Office receives your work and complete application, you will not receive official documentation of this for around three months.
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