Friday, November 02, 2012

Copyright May Not Work the Way You Think.

When to sweat it, when not to: Rookie authors worry about copyright issues, as they should, but more often than not they have it backwards. The danger may not be where they think it is.
  • Registering Copyright of Your Book: Don't Sweat It.
    Authors, like inventors, instinctively worry about someone stealing their words, their ideas, their work. The solution seems obvious: Register the work with the government. Get a patent, get a trademark, get a copyright. In general, this defensive posture is, well defensive, when the smarter play is to go on the offensive. When I was a young journalist, thinking about starting a magazine, my editor advised me not to worry about anyone stealing my idea. "If you think you're a genius because you've had a great idea, then you're smart enough to have another idea. And another. And another." A marketing director told me something similar, that it was smarter to put my efforts into getting my project to market than focusing on hiring lawyers to protect something I hadn't proven even had a market. Copyright differs from a patent (and to a lesser extent a trademark) in that it is protection you get the second you create a work. You don't need to register it. You don't even need to add a copyright notice (though you would be wise to do so). You can register it with the U.S. Copyright Office for $35.00 (if you do it online), which gives you some leverage if you wind up in court. (Legal experts say you're more likely to be awarded court fees if you win, though you may not be more likely to win.) The U.S. Copyright Office requires an actual copy of the book, which creates a problem for today's self-publishing printing-on-demand author. Every time, you revise you book, you need to register again. So ... it doesn't hurt to register your book with the U.S. Copyright Office, but it's down on my list of priorities.
  • Violating Someone Else's Copyright: Sweat It.
    On the other hand, authors tend to pay too little attention to the possibility that they may be violating the copyright protection of others. To a great extent, I'm guessing, this comes from our college experience where we're taught to write papers filled with quotes and references. Plagiarism is a concern, so the emphasis is on quoting and attributing accurately, but there is no emphasis on getting permission to use said material. Indeed, in the copyright world, the U.S. Copyright Office has a long and complicated explanation of "fair use," which includes the lifting of images and quotation of material for purposes of education, research, and scholarship. There are also "fair use" guidelines that list consideration of the percentage of material taken from the copyrighted work, the percentage of copyrighted material that makes up the new work, the purpose of the new work (commercial or nonprofit), and so forth. For example, one might be able to fairly quote 500 words from a 100,000 word commercial work but get in trouble for quoting the entire 50 words of a poem or song in a 60,000 piece of non-fiction published by a nonprofit. In the end, "fair use" is really determined by the copyright holder and the U.S. Copyright Office says the following: "The safest course is to get permission from the copyright owner before using copyrighted material. The Copyright Office cannot give this permission." You can use material from the "public domain," which refers to material that is decades old but is also subject to a complicated definition. Nowadays, authors assume that words and images found on the internet are in the public domain, being in front of people in a very public way, but this is definitely not true, especially for images but also for words. Keep in mind that you don't always need to quote. You can carefully paraphrase, direct people to books and websites for more information, and always give credit. I have worked with several authors capable of doing their own bible translations from Hebrew and Greek. Authors can make informed decisions about how much risk they are willing to take, but I always advise them to do so in the context of the highlighted words from the U.S. Copyright Office above.
  • Protecting Your Copyright from Contributors: Sweat It. Finally, you need to pay attention to your own copyright when you assign someone else to produce some "work" in the form of words, graphics, or images for you. The cleanest way to do this is to assign it as a "work for hire." However, you must specify the copyright and ownership implications in writing. This is because copyright law protects the "creator" of a work. Thus, if you hire someone to produce illustrations for a children's book that you wrote, you need to clarify your relationship and ownership of those illustrations in writing. This can go any number of ways. You can own the illustrations completely, or own them for the limited purpose of using them in this book (including subsequent editions), or own them for use in the book or in an electronic edition, or own them for use in the book and promotional purposes and so on. You can be generous in the way that you allow your illustrator or writer such work product (in their portfolios, for showing in galleries, or for creating and selling prints, for example), but you need to protect the use of those illustrations or work product for your original and intended purposes. The Publishing Pro.

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