The Legal Resource for Writers

It’s never been more accessible for writers to self-publish their own work. The self-publishing industry is bursting with creative new stories in both print and digital form. Publishing a book can be a thrilling venture, but new writers must be aware of the legal restrictions and requirements that may affect them. Responsible writers will do their due diligence in researching the rules of the publishing industry.

Copyright and Fair Use

One of the most basic elements of law that a writer should be aware of is copyright. Copyright is a term that covers a wide range of different legal rights given to the author of a work. It means that a creator has exclusive rights to copy and distribute their creation in media, whether that falls under the form of a book, work of art, audio play, translation, or e-book. In many countries, including the United States, copyright is automatically granted to a work. No registration is necessary, although many writers document the progress of their project. If a party reproduces or redistributes a work without permission, they have committed copyright infringement, which is illegal.

There is a provision, called fair use, that states that an item of work with a copyright may be reproduced for a limited time as long as it is used in a work meant to review or parody the original piece. An example of this could be movie clips used in a comedy critique or review. With fair use, permission from the creator is not necessary. For writers, this could be a benefit, especially if choice lines from their work are included in a positive review from another source.

Self-Publishing Missteps

Thanks to the development of digital technology, anyone can put together an e-book in a matter of hours. In a world where the excitement of being published can be overwhelming, it’s important to remember that quick does not always equal quality. For instance, writers in a hurry to publish their work may use photos found online for their book’s cover. Copyright extends to photos as well, and photos used illegally or without permission could be grounds for a legal suit. It’s also important to take some time with the editing and design of the book, as a poor internal layout can make the words difficult to read or follow and readers may grow frustrated with inconsistent punctuation or spacing.

Writers may also inadvertently step on the toes of other creators. Including another person’s work, whether in the form of song lyrics, photos, art, or even design, without permission is copyright infringement. Sometimes, established writers may find that it is their own work that has been stolen. In this event, authors may send a takedown notice informing the hosting site or company of the infringement. In extreme cases, an attorney may be required to navigate the finer areas of the law.

Be Mindful of Scams

When someone shows interest in a piece of writing that’s taken years to complete, it can be immensely flattering. Unfortunately, there are many well-intended writers who have fallen victim to self-publishing scams. One of the most common forms of scams is known as vanity publishing, in which the author pays a company to publish their work. Some of these companies receive the payment and provide a poor product or no product at all. Few of them will do any work to market the book.

Other common scams are phony publishers or publishing companies. These publishers will pose as open-access publishers (that is, those who will make work publicly available for a fee) or independent publishing houses. A good rule of thumb to remember is that if the company wants money from the author before they’ll publish a work, it’s likely a scam. Writers should be careful about researching prospective companies and make sure they’re legitimate before handing over their creative product.

Taxes and Bookkeeping

Working as a freelance or self-published author can present a range of issues when tax time rolls around. If a writer makes money from their work, they are, in the eyes of the law, a self-employed worker. Writers should therefore keep careful track of all expenses related to their work. For example, if a writer travels to a town to do research for their next novel, the gas, meals, materials, and lodging for the trip can be included in business expenses. Writers should also keep good track of their income and expenses by hanging on to any invoices or sales receipts.

Contract Negotiation and Business Disputes

Typically, for a work to be published, the distributor must obtain a license to distribute said work. An exclusive license essentially means a transfer of copyright: The work will belong to the distributor, not the author. A non-exclusive license allows the author to retain copyright and control of their work. Taking the time to read and negotiate a contract can help eliminate any surprise transfers of control and can make sure that the author is still allowed to use their work as they like. With one or more writers, especially if the contract is not well reviewed, business disputes may arise. In these cases, it may be advisable to seek legal help from someone who knows the industry well.

Permissions and Agreements With Other Media

In the event that a written work is eyed for adaptation, whether for a film, the stage, or an audio play, there will be plenty of creative agreements and contracts to address. Similarly to providing rights to publishers or distributors, authors will need to determine the type of license they wish to bestow and the time frame they want that arrangement to last. Royalties may need to be discussed, especially if the adapted work is going to be sold. By the same token, if an author wants to adapt an existing movie or play into a novel, they will need to obtain the permission of the creator before proceeding in a legal way.

The World of E-Books

E-books are far and away one of the cheapest ways to distribute a work, but they do face their own challenges with the law. Letting a friend borrow an e-book isn’t quite as simple as borrowing a printed work, since it’s a simple matter to copy the material and distribute it elsewhere illegally. The good news is that as the world grows more familiar with e-books, the laws protecting them become better defined. E-books can be a more affordable way for authors to reach their audience, and for many online distributors, the sale of an e-book yields a greater monetary return for the author than the sale of a printed book.

Other Legal Concerns

When venturing into digital and print publishing as a career, research should always be conducted to determine legal boundaries and protections for written works, especially when introducing those works to the public for sale. Understanding the law may be intimidating, but it isn’t impossible. By putting in the effort to learn as much as possible, writers can successfully navigate everything from their next published work to retirement.