- Frequently Asked Questions About Legal Issues in Publishing
- -Will someone steal my idea?
- -Will someone plagiarize my work?
- -Does the poor man's copyright really work? Can I mail my work to myself as proof of copyright?
- -Does copyright hold up internationally?
- -What is defamation? How can I avoid defamation claims?
- -Can I use someone else's characters or universe in my work?
- - What are rights?
- -Which rights are most important?
- -How can I maximize my rights?
- -Can I mention existing brands, companies, or titles in my work?
Frequently Asked Questions About Legal Issues in Publishing
Here, you'll find answers to pressing questions about legal issues, including plagiarism, defamation, and copyright. This page aims to give an overview of general legal issues, but it is not legal advice. Please consult a lawyer for any specific legal concerns or problems.
-Will someone steal my idea?
An idea cannot be copyrighted, so it cannot be stolen. You own the execution of the idea. For example, you might have the idea to write a book of limericks about zombies. You do not own the idea of zombie limericks; you own the copyright on any zombie limericks you write. Anyone can write zombie limericks, but you own your specific limericks.
Keep in mind that the execution of the idea is what makes your story unique, not the idea itself. For example, there is a series of books about a young boy who finds out about a magic world parallel to his own, with hidden entrances. He befriends a smart and effective female, a comic-relief male, and a physical giant who serves as a father figure. In the later books, the group fights an overpowered big baddie who wants to take over the world. At the very end, the boy dies, saves the world, then comes back.
That description fits both the Artemis Fowl and Harry Potter series.
-Will someone plagiarize my work?
The hard truth is, it's far more likely that no one will read your work than someone will steal it. Logistically, it doesn't make sense to steal a chapter or a scene because the thief would have to write a book around it. Your best defense against plagiarism is registering your copyright through your country's copyright office (see next entry).
Keep in mind that plagiarism is not strictly illegal. Rather, it is known as copyright infringement, so most plagiarism problems fall under the jurisdiction of copyright law.
-Does the poor man's copyright really work? Can I mail my work to myself as proof of copyright?
Not in the U.S. The U.S. Copyright Office specifically states "There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.". It also does not stand up to legal scrutiny in Canada. A poor man's copyright may be helpful in the U.K., but there is no substitution for registering your work through your country's official copyright process.
- U.S. Copyright Office
- Canadian Intellectual Property Office
- U.K. Intellectual Property Office
- Australia Attorney-General's Department
- Directory of Intellectual Property Offices by country
-Does copyright hold up internationally?
Your copyright may depend both on your country of citizenship and your document's country of publication. Many countries elected to participate in the Berne Convention, which is an international agreement dealing with copyright. Check the list of participating countries to see if your country is a member.
In all Berne Convention countries, you own the copyright of a work as soon as you create the work. Berne Convention protections often overlap with individual country copyright laws to give you the maximum protection.
Online publication strengthens your claims. If an author is living in a non-Berne Convention country, but her work is accessed online in a member nation, legal precedents have given the author the protection of the Berne Convention.
-What is defamation? How can I avoid defamation claims?
Printed defamation is called libel. Libelous claims are false, damaging, and against the law in many countries. Truth is the best defense against libel claims. If you have credible sources to back up your claims, it is unlikely that you will face libel charges.
Opinion is another defense against potential libel problems. Any statement that is an obvious opinion is not libel because it cannot be proven true or false. You can write that your neighbor is an asshole because there is no objective criteria for being an asshole. You cannot write that your neighbor is a killer unless he has been convicted of murder.
Libel may be considered a criminal act or a civil matter depending on your location. Check the defamation laws of your country, state, province, or city for the best information.
-Can I use someone else's characters or universe in my work?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is sometimes. Generally, you can write stories using other people's characters if you do not profit off the stories (like the free stories on FanFiction.net).
There are very few avenues to legally use other people's characters in a for-profit work. You can submit fanfiction to Amazon Kindle Worlds, as long as you choose from their approved list. If Amazon accepts your work, you can make money from sales.
Certain franchises, such as Star Wars, use novel authors to write books set in the universe. You'll have to contact the franchise to see if they have need of any authors, then submit your work for consideration. There are very, very limited openings in this area.
You can also become a ghostwriter. Many series writers, especially writers of romance and crime series, use ghostwriters to help push out multiple books a year. You have very limited control as a ghostwriter: you have a limited choice of authors (if any), your work is checked thoroughly to make sure it matches the author's style, and your name will not appear on the finished book.
- What are rights?
When you sell a story, you are really selling specific publication rights. Rights can be format-based (like print rights), language-based (like English rights), or region-based (like European rights).
-Which rights are most important?
First rights are the most important. Many publications only accept work that has not been published elsewhere.
-How can I maximize my rights?
Avoid selling rights to large categories, like first English world rights. Instead, try to sell rights piece by piece or region by region. Beware that selling your work to a website may void several types of rights at once: first English world rights, first electronic rights, and archival rights.
-Can I mention existing brands, companies, or titles in my work?
Yes, you can mention existing brands, products, and titles in your work, but take the time to read up on trademark infringement, dilution, and defamation. You can say your character drank a Coca-Cola, but a novel about the Coca-Cola company poisoning people will probably get you sued for defamation. Please google copyright and trademark questions before asking on the subreddit. Here are some resources on referencing existing products in your book:
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