Copyright can be a confusing tricky little beast, especially if you're a non-fiction writer. But even fiction authors can come a cropper. Images, quotes, even brand names all have copyright associated to them. ALLi partner member Tim McConnehey, founder of IzzardInk is here to tease out the ins and outs of copyright for indie authors.
Copyright for Indie Authors
Self-publishing authors are increasingly aiming for the kind of top-tier book success that was once reserved for traditional publishers. But many might not realize the added responsibility that could come with that success. It’s shockingly easy to run afoul of copyright laws, and many authors, especially self-publishers, may not understand what that means. It’s ultimately a question of how much risk authors are willing to take, but the first step is to get informed.
What is a Copyright Violation?
It’s surprisingly easy to veer into copyright infringement when writing a book, especially if it’s non-fiction. It’s crucial to understand that intent is not a factor in copyright law—authors can, and often do, violate copyrights without realizing or intending to do so. Fines can run as high as $250,000, and willful copyright infringement can even lead to prison time.
If you’re quoting more than a few words, you’ll need to look into what’s involved in getting permissions. If you quote a paragraph, even citing it properly, you can run into trouble. Many, many authors aren’t aware of this. It’s been an issue for traditional publishers for years, and is likely to become more of an issue for self-publishers as they account for more of the market share collectively, and find greater success individually.
In many cases, simply asking for permission won’t work. Some large corporations won’t grant you the right to use their material or even their names in your work. The best bet here is to avoid using brand names altogether. Watch out for words like Band-aid and Kleenex, names that have found widespread usage as a generic term for an item. If you do use brand names, be sure to capitalize them as a proper name, and consider including a disclaimer on your book’s copyright page. But the safest course of action is to ask permission or avoid using them at all.
Images are another tricky area. Above all, never assume you can use an image you found online. In one case at Izzard Ink, we saw an author combine four images she found on the web, and claim that image as her own. This won’t work, and luckily, we caught this before the book was published.
If you can contact the creator of an image, they might allow you to use it—but be sure to get written permission to avoid issues later on. Even if you purchase the rights to a stock image, be sure to read your license. Not all licenses will allow you to use the image for a commercial purpose like selling your book. Very often, it’s most practical to simply pay a designer to create an image specifically for your book.
When seeking permission to use quotes, content, images, or other material, it’s best to send a written letter rather than an email. Be sure to keep records of the communication. To get started, you can find templates and guides for these letters online.
What Isn’t a Copyright Violation?
One important guideline to remember: it isn’t facts that are copyrighted, it’s the way they’re expressed by a certain author. If this sounds a bit vague, it’s because it is. How much overlap in wording is too much? Exactly how much of someone else’s work can you use? Copyright infringement is often handled on a frustratingly case-by-case basis, and it’s very hard to be totally certain you’re in safe territory. But there are some notable exceptions.
Copyrights also expire, and once work becomes “public domain” it can be freely used by anyone. But it takes quite a while. There’s a lot of variability here, and you can look into the specific rules or find sites that gather public domain material. As a general rule, books published before 1923 are a good bet, as well as later books in some circumstances.
Creative Commons and Fair Use
Creative Commons licenses also allow for use of content, but you’ll still need to look closely to determine whether commercial use is allowed by a specific license. Another exception is “fair use,” a statutory exemption based on the First Amendment that allows for satire and critique, uses for which the copyrighter holder might not give permission, as well as scholarly and research purposes. To be considered fair use, authors will often need to add value through additional meaning, commentary, or transformation of the work. But this is a defense to use once you’ve already been sued, so it’s risky to rely on it ahead of time.
While content from within books and movies, and the lyrics to songs, are copyrighted, their titles are not. This can be helpful if you want to reference media. The amount of another work you’ve used, compared to the overall size of your own work, may be considered as well—but once again, there’s little in the way of dependable guidelines.
How to Protect Yourself
If everything you just read sounds vague, complicated, and even potentially inconsistent, then you’re probably beginning to understand the pitfalls of copyright law. And as you might imagine, large traditional publishing companies are often better equipped to defend themselves than your average self-publishing author.
But there are measures you can take to limit the risk and be prepared. It may be worth it to speak to an intellectual property attorney to assess your book before publishing. It’s better to spend a smaller amount of money now than to pay later to defend yourself from a lawsuit.
Treat Publishing as a Business
Serious authors are essentially launching a business when they publish, and it may help to approach it that way. Setting up an LLC could help protect you from liability, as well as bringing tax advantages. This could depend on location, and speaking to a CPA might be a good idea as well. Finally, basic business insurance, or even media coverage, is another option. Contact a small business insurance broker to look into this and get yourself covered.
The Benefits of Copyright
Finally, remember that copyright law works both ways. You’ll want to know that anything you publish is subject to the same protections, as plagiarism has become increasingly rampant with the rise of digital self-publishing. That’s why ALLi is seeking a balance between an open internet, free speech, and fair use on the one hand, and author’s right to make a living on the other, with its Author’s Bill of Rights.
In short, the bigger your success, the bigger the risk. It’s hard to be certain you’re steering clear of copyright violations anytime you use any content from someone else. Self-publishing authors should take steps ahead of time to understand their liability and protect themselves. It’s better to spend time and money now than the kind of time and money that’s required once you’ve been sued.
You can find out more about Tim McConnehey and IzzardInk Publishing here.Learn the ins and outs of copyright for authors @izzardink #selfpublishing #IARTG #ASMRG #amwriting #writingcommunity #writetip Click To Tweet
OVER TO YOU
Have you ever made a copyright mistake? Have you had your work plagiarized?
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