By Daniella Fiocco
“Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations…”
(Henry David Thoreau)
I have long been a fan of the hardcopy. A novel idea in the present day (excuse the pun), a hardcopy book is a physical object comprising of multiple papers, bound together with glue, a hard spine and an outer shell. The pages within it contain many sentences that convey information to the reader who, when they have read all the words on the page, turns the single paper from right to left to continue reading. Books vary in size and weight according to the amount of information housed within them, and they pre-existed the World Wide Web, iPads and Kindles by a very significant period of time. You hold them – generally with two hands – as your bank account praises you, along with your eyes, in the knowledge that your money will be put to better use than sending your optometrist on bi-annual cruises with his wife and your health insurer.
Have you ever noticed the number on the back of the hardcopy books that you purchase, close by the barcode (which, incidentally, is just a visual representation of the numbers that a computer is able to read)? This 13-digit number is known as an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). But what is it for, do you need one, and does it have anything at all to do with copyright protections afforded under Intellectual Property Law?
The Difference between ISBNs and Copyright
International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were introduced in 1970 as unique product identifiers for books across the world. They are designed to facilitate the sale and cataloging of books in an increasingly globalized world, aiding publishers, booksellers, online retailers, libraries and governments in their reproduction, retailing and management of such works. They originally appeared as a combination of 10 numbers, though this was increased to 13 digits in 2007. ISBNs themselves do not convey or provide any legal or copyright protection, although in some jurisdictions the ownership of an ISBN is a prerequisite to the acquiring of copyright protection.
Copyright, on the other hand, refers explicitly to the legal protection conferred on original works, automatically applying when the creative work is completed by its author. It provides the author with exclusive control over the work they have produced for the period of their life plus 50 years after their death (this is the general period globally, though is it legislatively prescribed in each jurisdiction) after which time the copyright expires and the work enters the public domain. It prevents the reproduction of all or substantial parts of the author’s work by other parties seeking to exploit such work without permission from the owner of the works. Though this protection applies by default when a work is completed, there are many benefits to registering one’s copyright at the relevant intellectual property office, especially if you intend to challenge the unauthorised use of your material and fight any potential infringements that may arise.
Importantly, and as you have no doubt noticed, ISBNs and Copyright protections are not the same thing. They are governed by different bodies and serve different purposes… but they are both vital aspects of getting a book onto the market.
What ISBNs Identify
To best understand what ISBNs identify, and how they are formed, the following diagram by the International ISBN Agency should first be consulted;
The prefix (‘EAN Prefix’) is determined by the governing body of ISBNs, while the remaining digits contain information relating to the location (‘registration group’), publisher (‘registrant’) and publication edition (‘publication’). The final digit, known as the ‘check digit’, validates the entire ISBN and is calculated through a computer program.
ISBNs contain no information relating to the author of the book to which it is attached, and to whom copyright usually belongs. As it is generally the publisher of a book that applies for the ISBN, the author is, in the production of the digits, completely irrelevant. The only reason why the author of a book would be involved in the ISBN process is if they were to self-publish their work, in which case the registrant number would be theirs personally. These numbers, however, are not used in the assignment or determining of copyright ownership. They are book (not author) identifiers, and their importance is limited to the marketplace, as opposed to the Courts. For this reason, when attempting to get your book onto the market you must turn your mind not only to ISBNs, but also the copyright.
How Copyright Works
Copyright deals with the legal ownership of works like books and confers rights onto the creators so that their work cannot be used ad hoc and claimed by another party as their own. In most countries, copyright protection, as I noted earlier, applies automatically when a work is completed and can be strengthened by registration, though such registration is non compulsory. The protection limits the unauthorised use of materials at law, and lasts for the lifetime of the author, plus an additional fifty years following their death (this may vary in different countries). This protection is vested first in the author of the work, until it is demonstrated that the work was commissioned or another exception applies.
What do I need to get my book on the market?
If you are hoping to sell your book internationally or undertake any form of mass production, regardless of what legislation prescribes in your country, attaching at ISBN to your work is one of the best things you can do. If you are working with a publisher, chances are they have already assigned one to the book; if you’re not sure, ask them. If you are self-publishing, look into purchasing an ISBN. Despite my nostalgia relating to hardcopies, ISBNs are relevant also if you intend to publish e-books available for sale on sites such as Amazon. ISBN identifiers are an excellent tool used widely in the marketplace and provide more trading opportunities than you can hope to get without one.
As noted, copyright is a completely different matter – but one that is just as important. Although the protection applies automatically, it is advisable to register your work with the relevant intellectual property office to strengthen your protection and to gain a certificate as proof of your ownership of copyright.
Henry David Thoreau rightly noted that “books are the treasured wealth of the world” – so ensure that yours is protected and easily marketable today by considering ISBNs and copyright registration.
For more information about ISBNs, see the International ISBN Agency.