Friday, November 1, 2019

The Confusing World of Copyrights and Permissions--A Brief Overview for the New Author

Although I don't recommend spending much time on the legal aspects of publishing until you are close to that long-awaited time, there are some good rules of thumb to know about.  Here are a few questions I get regularly: 

1. Do you need to copyright your manuscript before submitting to agents or publishers? If you self-publish, is it a good idea to go ahead and register your book officially with the office of copyright?

2. Are you responsible for getting permission to use copyrighted material, such as song lyrics, in your book?  Or does your agent or publisher take care of that?

First, a disclaimer:  I'm not a copyright lawyer, far from it, and I only speak here out of my personal experience with being an author and editor in the publishing world.  Take my advice, or the advice from links offered below, as a layperson's, not legal counsel.  If you need that, search elsewhere.

On the first question, and this may be a relief or a surprise to some of you, as soon as you write your manuscript, it's legally copyrighted, at least in the U.S.  You don't need to put the (c) 2019 your name at the bottom of each page.  In fact, this brands you as an amateur with most agents and publishers who know the rule.  It says you haven't taken the time to research how to truly protect your work in today's publishing industry.  

Can other writers steal your work if you don't mark every page with your copyright?  Again, my experience is that the industry is quite transparent--it's a smaller world than you think--and literary theft is soon outed.  There are exceptions, but it's not something that has happened to me or the hundreds of writers I've worked with.  Chances are low that it will happen to you.

In my beginning years as an author, I did consult a lawyer from the Authors Guild in NYC--worth checking out for those who have published something, somewhere, because you can get free legal advice on this and many other topics.  I learned I could go the additional distance and register the manuscript with the Federal Copyright Office, but in this lawyer's opinion, it would provide only a small amount of backup if the work should be stolen.  An agent I respected said, "Don't bother."  And I didn't.

Second question:  Do you need to get permissions yourself, before you submit to an agent or publisher, if you use other people's work?  Now you do.  In the eighties, when I began publishing, my agent took care of this.  Later in the nineties, after my agent retired and I published with small presses, they took care of it, most of the time.  I had to send the letters requesting permission.  Fair use has changed, too.  Some research is helpful here, if you're citing from work that is not in public domain.  Especially song lyrics.  And publishers often charge for use, or at least they did with some of my books.  

Here's a good basic explanation of the fair use and other requirements you need to know, if you are including quotations or lyrics or other copyrighted work in your manuscript.  (The link  is here; if it doesn't work, go to and search for copyright info.)  Learning about this may change your mind about blithely including your favorite lines from your favorite songs as epigraphs to your chapters.  

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