Ask Author Law

Don't buy in to copyright bunk!

February 24, 2015

Tags: Copyright Myths, Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Freelance Writing, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Manuscript

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 have heard about a “poor man’s copyright” where you seal your manuscript in an envelope and mail it to yourself. Is this a way for writers to protect themselves?

A: No, no, no! The “poor man’s copyright” is a common myth that’s been around forever. You already own the copyright in your manuscript and have owned it from the moment your work was fixed in a "tangible medium of expression."

Additional protection comes from registering your copyright, which is a fairly straightforward procedure. Registration is not required, but it is a great idea for many reasons. I’ll cover reasons for registration in a future post. I'm keeping this one short because this myth really bugs me and I want to be blunt. I also stayed up too late watching the Oscars and I’m behind.

The Copyright Office has a great website, http://www.copyright.gov. Get your information there and don’t buy in to copyright bunk, especially this tired old myth.

Who controls the rights to my books when the publisher is long gone?

February 17, 2015

Tags: Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Publishing, Books, Contracts, Collaboration Agreement, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Work Made For Hire

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 two young adult fiction books years ago (in the early eighties) for a flat fee on a work made for hire basis. These two books are long out of print and the publisher is out of business. I have two problems. First, how can I get the rights to these two books back? And second, the contract I signed called for me to write a total of six books under the same terms. The contract also said they were to be my “next” six books. If publisher is out of business can I forget about the other four books? The first publisher was bought out by another publisher and that second publisher has faded from the scene.

A: Let’s talk about your second question first. Since the publisher is no longer in business and never asked you to produce the last four contract books while it was still publishing, it is not possible for you to “perform” on the contract. So this particular contract clause is not enforceable and I wouldn’t worry about it. Even if the first publisher were still in business, if years have gone by without the publisher requesting you to write the next books a court would be reluctant to enforce a contract that unreasonably restrains your right to ply your trade.

As to getting the rights back to your first two books, I would need to examine the contract for “belt and suspenders” language in the work made for hire clause. A contract that simply says the work is considered as a work made for hire is probably not valid. That’s because books (except textbooks) are not among the specific categories qualified as work made for hire under the copyright law as it was substantially revamped effective in 1978. If, on the other hand, the contract says something like “in the event that the Work is ever held not to be a work made for hire, the Author hereby agrees to assign the copyright to the Publisher,” then the original publisher may indeed be the copyright owner. Assuming a lack of belt and suspenders language, the work made for hire language is not valid because your book isn’t a covered category under the law. The next question is if the contract didn’t convey the entire copyright to the publisher, what rights did the publisher acquire? Lawyers don’t agree on this and there are no definitive cases to guide us, so the best we can do is make an educated guess. My guess is that a court called upon to interpret such a contract would construe it in a light least favorable to the publisher and would say that the publisher acquired the right to publish the book, period. Once the book is out of print and the publisher defunct, the rights would naturally revert to the author.

Very often the legal implications of a decision are something of a gamble based on an analysis of the risk. In this case, your risk is pretty low. The publisher who might try to enforce any rights under that contract is long gone, and, even if someone unearthed that old contract and tried to hold you to it, I doubt that the courts could enforce it. So I’d say that you are reasonably safe. The only potential problem I can see is if you try to license those two old books to a new publisher, you might be asked to warrant that the rights are clear. If you decide to try to get those books published, you would be wise to run your new contract past an attorney. In fact, you’d be wise to run any book contract past an attorney or agent.

Can I use radio recordings for articles and other projects?

February 9, 2015

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

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 host a local radio show and I'm wondering if the interviews I do of guests on my shows are owned by me, to reproduce, or if I need to get permission when I want to use part of that interview in a written piece?

A: Just like you own a copyright in your own words from the moment they are “fixed in a tangible medium of expression” your guests own the copyright in their words when the show is recorded, which constitutes fixation. So the answer to your question is that the guests’ comments are owned by them, not by you, and the normal permission requirements would apply.

A good practice would be to get every guest to sign a consent form before the show, giving you permission to reproduce copies of the broadcast and to use the interviews for other projects. (It’s even possible that your station already has consent forms signed by guests). If you use phone interviews, obtaining written consent is less practical but you could make it a practice to ask for consent and record it prior to the interview. Verbal consent is a defense to copyright infringement, but the problem is proving that you had the consent. A recording where you explain your intended uses of the material and get consent would provide proof.

When you want to use material from your archive and you don’t have proof of consent, then you should follow the same procedures for use of the material that you would if you wanted to use someone else’s written material. Some of your proposed uses could be brief quotations that might constitute fair use. Or you might paraphrase and attribute as an indirect quote. Other uses would require consent. If so, you should contact the interviewee and ask for permission. If you get verbal permission, be sure to make notes of your conversation or record it.

You may be wondering why you didn’t need to get consent for the original interview. That is because by participating in the interview the guest is giving you implied consent to broadcast and record the interview. That implied consent would probably also apply to rebroadcasts and other radio uses of the interview but wouldn’t cover use in written pieces.

Can I sing my song parodies in an audio book?

February 2, 2015

Tags: Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, Parody, Publishing, Books, Contracts, Collaboration Agreement, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Copyright Registration, Copyright Office, Form GR, Form TX, Editing

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 nonfiction book on family finance in which I urged consumers to use humor to deal with financial stress. One of my suggestions is to sing in the shower using made up lyrics to popular songs. I gave three examples in my book by including the lyrics I wrote along with a suggestion that the lyrics be sung to the tune of such and such a song. Now my publisher is going to put out an audio version of the book and I’m going to be doing the reading. Can I sing the three sample songs in my book or should I read them in a regular voice?

A: The legal answer is that you probably have a right to perform your songs without the permission of the copyright owners. The practical answer is that you would most likely have to defend yourself in a lawsuit if you exercise that right.

The prudent thing would be to read the text directly from the book without breaking into song, even though parody is a covered exception to copyright infringement as a fair use. In fact, there is a supreme court case involving a recording by the rap group 2 Live Crew of the hit Roy Orbison song “Pretty Woman,” morphed by the rappers into “Hairy Woman,” The court held that even the recording of most of the words and all of the melody is permissible as parody. So you would certainly have a fair use defense to your use of the three song parodies in your audio book.

The practical problem is that music copyright owners are both vigilant and litigious and you risk being sued. Even though you would have, in my opinion, an excellent defense, you would probably have to pay some very high legal fees to win your case. The result would be that you’d likely lose more money winning than it would be worth.

If you have your heart set on performing the songs, you could always try to obtain permission to use them. You’ll most likely be asked for a licensing fee. For information on how to obtain such licenses contact the performing rights societies ASCAP, BMI, and the Harry Fox Agency. All have helpful web sites.