Q: Do I need to get a copyright for a pseudonym, or will a copyright for the book under my chosen pen name be sufficient? —Al de Araujo
A: The name H.G. Wells isn’t copyrighted. Neither is Michael Crichton. Why? Under U.S. law you can’t copyright a name, real or fictitious. Copyrights protect authorship, such as short stories, poems, or novels.
You can register a manuscript under a pen name at the copyright office (www.copyright.gov). You’ll have to provide some information, including your real address. But if you really want to keep your true identity under wraps, set up a post office box and have information from the office sent there.
It’s important to get your pen name on record so the Copyright Office can acknowledge the proper life span of the copyright. Work created by authors not identified by the Copyright Office has a copyright life of only 95 years from publication or 120 years from the work’s creation—whichever comes first. If a writer identifies herself to the copyright office and registers her pen name, the copyright term for the work is the author’s life plus 70 years. This means if I get hit by a bus tomorrow my work is still protected until 2078.
It’s also important to check with the office first and do online searches to avoid using names of real people or names that have already been taken by other authors. While you can’t copyright a name, you can get sued for identity theft. Also, publishers can get pretty angry if you try to pass yourself off as someone famous like J.K. Rowling or Dean Koontz. Stick with something unique.