Ask Author Law

When and how can I recycle my own content?

January 27, 2015

Tags: Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Contracts, Collaboration Agreement, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Content Recycling

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: A group of other writers and I were having a discussion about rewriting and selling stories if you had sold all rights to previous versions. To what extent must you rewrite to avoid copyright infringement? I have looked and asked in vain for a definitive answer -- or even an authoritative and marginally helpful one. Are you familiar with any relevant statutes or case law? I do understand that in one case copyright infringement occurred on the basis of just two distinctive words.

A: The reason youíve had trouble finding a ďdefinitive answerĒ is that one doesnít exist. This is another question to which the answer is ďit depends.Ē It depends, in large part, on whether the particular all rights contract you signed had the effect of transferring the copyright to the publisher. That could have happened in a work made for hire agreement or in an all rights agreement that specifically assigns the copyright.

Absent a clear assignment of copyright, an all rights contract still leaves you as the author and owner of the underlying copyright. True, that underlying copyright is a mere shell of its former self, but it does leave you with the right to create a derivative work, a work ďbased onĒ the original. When you have the right to create a work based on the original you can revise fairly lightly and probably be OK, although it would still be wise to make your revisions as extensive as possible.

If, on the other hand, you did convey the copyright to the publisher, then you have only the same fair use rights as anyone else. To make fair use of your own work, you can quote briefly from it and go back to and quote from the same sources, but you should write the rest of the article from scratch.

To avoid this problem altogether, you should avoid signing all rights or WMFH contracts at all. You can tell the publisher who proffers one that youíll be happy to license the rights the publisher reasonably needs at a fair price, but that all rights arenít available. If itís too late because you already signed all the rights away, you can still avoid a problem by getting the publisherís permission to license reprints. If the publisher doesnít care, youíll probably get permission. Consent is a complete defense to copyright infringement, so you change as little or as much as you wish. Even verbal consent is OK, although it would be better to follow up on the verbal consent with a letter thanking the publisher for giving you permission and still better to send the publisher two copies of a letter agreement that asks the publisher to acknowledge the consent by signing and sending back to you. In this case, enclose as SASE to make it as easy as possible for the publisher to do what you want her to do. If you intend to rely on the verbal consent, make a note of the name of the person you talked to, the date, the time, the number called, and the gist of the conversation. Keep those notes in your records. If itís legal to tape a phone conversation in your state, do that too.

You should also consider the ethical implications of your question. Some methods of recycling an article may be completely legal but ethically ambiguous. If you have doubts, getting permission is probably the best method.

What to do if you get sued

January 19, 2015

Tags: Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Contracts, Collaboration Agreement, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Lawsuit, Defendant

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: A local real estate broker hired me to write some columns under his name for a weekly newspaper. He was supposed to pay me $300 per column, on delivery. He was going to get the byline and own the copyright, but it was a ghostwriting job and he supplied the subject and the expertise, so those terms were acceptable to me. I did one column and delivered it. He paid me $300 and said he liked it. I did two more columns. He paid another $600 and asked me to finish as many as I could so heíd have a stock of columns all ready to go. I finished and delivered another seven columns and sent him an invoice for $2,100. Iím not sure what happened between him and the local paper, but the column didnít appear when he had told me it would. He didnít pay the invoice. I sent a second invoice, which he also ignored. I tried to call his office, but he didnít return my calls. During this period I got several other assignments, so I moved on and didnít follow up further with him. A few weeks went by and then, to my absolute shock, I received a computerized form notice from the municipal court that I was being sued for $1,000 by the broker. I tried to call the broker again, but he still didnít return my calls. Iím totally outraged and have absolutely no intention of paying him any money. He doesnít return my calls. Iím tempted just to throw this notice away. He canít prove anything against me, so why should I let him get away with this? What do you think?

A: I share your outrage, but you canít just ignore this. Itís an absolutely awful feeling to be the defendant in a legal action. Youíre put in a position over which you have very little control. You have to show up on someone elseís timetable and answer to allegations that someone else has made. Itís especially awful when the allegations against you are without basis, as these seem to be. If you are like most of my clients who have been sued, youíre furious, upset, and afraid. This is completely understandable, and I sympathize. But you still need to deal with it.

You didnít identify the state where you live, but it sounds like youíre being sued in a small claims court. The following suggestions are based on that assumption. If you have any reason to believe that the notice youíve received is NOT a small claims summons, you should consult a lawyer promptly. If itís definitely a small claims case, you can defer your decision on whether to get a lawyer until farther along in the process.

Iíve found that defendants who survive the best are the ones who manage to channel their anger productively, detach as much as possible, and prepare for their defense methodically. I know this is easier said than done, but you should try your best to follow a process in which you verify the basics, gather information, then make and follow a plan, while remaining flexible and able to adapt to the various curve balls that may come your way. Youíll do best and youíll feel less helpless if you take a proactive stance, rather than an emotional, reactive one. Hereís where being a writer can be a major advantage. See if you can treat this as a writing project and bring your professional skills to bear. Even if you never write about this experience, a journalistic approach can help you get through it.

The first step is to verify the basics. Small claims courts are state courts, so the rules, procedures and applicable law can vary considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Itís not unusual for these courts to use a computerized summons served by mail. Thatís the case in New York, where I practice. Examine the notice you received. Make sure itís really from a court. Some collection agencies and lawyers send letters threatening legal action that resemble court documents.

At a minimum, it should give you instructions on when and where you should appear and some idea of what youíre being sued for. Any court dates or deadlines important here. Then you should check with the court to make sure you understand what is expected of you next. Many courts discourage telephone contact or use frustrating voice mail, but you should persevere. Often the best approach is to visit the court in person -- both to confirm the basics on your notice and, perhaps more important, to get a sense of the place and what happens there. If there is a session scheduled before your court date, attend as an observer. Sit up front where you can see and hear whatís going on.


Who controls the right to write about people?

January 9, 2015

Tags: Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Contracts, Freelance, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Author, Publishing, First Amendment

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: I wrote a book that was to include information about a well-known (and somewhat controversial) local minister, now deceased, who was an integral player in the story I was telling. During the course of my research I interviewed many members of his congregation, some of his colleagues, and his successor. I showed a copy of my manuscript to one of the prominent members of his congregation to review for accuracy and to see if he would give me a quote I could use as a cover blurb.

A few days later, out of the blue, I received a letter from a lawyer representing the church. The letter said that the churchís board of trustees had voted unanimously to withdraw permission to write about the minister because it had been his wish not to be written about.

It went on to say, ďthe Board, therefore, insists that you cease and desist from publishing any article or book about Rev. John Doe (name changed) in any form or manner,Ē and warned that if my book was published with the material on the minister included they would take legal action against me. This material is an important part of my book, which has already been accepted by a publisher. What can I do?

A: In the United States we have the right to write accurately about people and events. The subject of a book or article (or his associates) has no right to prevent you from writing about him, as long as you are truthful. When the subject is dead, you canít even libel him or invade his privacy.

In my opinion, you can either ignore the letter or respond politely, saying that there is no legal basis behind these demands and that you intend to exercise your first amendment right to write about the minister. As an alternative to responding yourself, you could ask a lawyer write on your behalf. That might give the response more weight. From a strategic perspective, Iíd advise responding with a polite but firm letter from either you or a lawyer just because itís helpful to all writers to correct grossly mistaken views such as those expressed in this letter.

You should also be careful in negotiating the publishing contract to make sure that you are only responsible for ďdamages finally sustainedĒ in the event of a lawsuit, rather than any ďclaimsĒ or other results short of a final damage award based on an actual breach of your warranty. If you think there is a risk of a nuisance suit, you may want to see if the publisher will add you to its insurance. If youíve already signed a publishing contract, you should probably consult with the publisher about ways to manage this risk. Many publishers will back you up. Some might want you to bear all the risk. If you have doubts about your legal liability, you should probably enlist the help of an attorney.


Quoting from an actual letter

January 5, 2015

Tags: Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Contracts, Infringement, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Plagiarism, Freelance, Fiction

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: Could you please give me an opinion on what is or is not plagiarism in fiction. For example, is it plagiarism to rewrite a letter in a fictionalized biography, so that the sense is the same as the original, but with very different wording, with original material added by the writer? In other words, how close does the prose have to be to fit the definition? Do you need permission in such a case, or is it enough simply to give credit?

A: You asked about plagiarism, but Iím also going to discuss infringement. All infringement is plagiarism, but all plagiarism is not necessarily infringement. Plagiarism is an academic concept regarding the failure to attribute the source of information or by misleading the reader as to the source. Infringement is the violation of a copyright. In cases of infringement, the issue is illegal copying, not attribution. You may be able to avoid charges of plagiarism by giving credit, but you need permission to use copyrighted work, except for very short quotes that constitute fair use. The situation you have described has the potential for both plagiarism and infringement.

There is no copyright protection for facts, so youíre free to fictionalize by inventing things based on the facts. The writer of a letter (published or unpublished) owns a copyright interest in the text of a letter, so youíre not free to make whatever use you wish of this other personís work. The same legal guidelines would apply to quoting someone elseís copyrighted work in fiction as in nonfiction. Short quotes might be considered fair use, but I wouldnít count on that.

Probably the safest way to handle this situation would be to paraphrase the actual letter and use indirect quotations. ďI will love you until the end of my days and beyond,Ē a direct quote, could be handled like this: Mary expressed her feelings in a passionate letter to John, saying that she would love him until she dies. Even when paraphrasing, it is important to change the actual words enough to avoid repeating distinctive phrases.

I would not advise making up a fictional letter and using direct quotes from it. That strikes me as moving a step beyond making up fictional dialogue. Rewriting something does not necessarily protect you from charges of plagiarism or infringement. Such revision would certainly be considered improper by academic standards and Iím not sure how you would handle quoting from a fabricated letter without misleading the reader. Basing a fictional letter on an actual letter could also be copyright infringement, even when you change the words. So, for all these reasons, I would stick to paraphrasing an actual letter by describing its existence and the gist of its contents. If you must use direct quotes, make them short and quote from the actual letter, not a fictionalized version.