Ask Author Law

Lucky author can publish a new edition of an old book.

December 31, 2015

Tags: Copyright Renewal, Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright Office, Publishing, Books, Contracts, IP Law, Intellectual Property, Journalism, Authors, Biography

Q: I am the author of a children’s biography that was published in 1965 by a publisher that has long since gone out of business. I didn’t know any better at the time, so I signed the copyright over to the publisher. The book has been out of print for years, but there was no reversion of rights or out of print clause in the original publishing contract, as nearly as I can recall (although I can’t find the original contract). There is now a lot of interest in the subject of that book because of a recent hit movie and the upcoming hundredth anniversary of one of the events in the subject’s life. I’d like to approach other publishers about a new edition of this book, but I assume I can’t because I signed away the copyright. What, if anything, can I do? Can I write a totally new biography? If so, what will it take to make it a new book that I can copyright in my own name?

A: You’re in luck. Your book was written and published under the old copyright law, which was changed in 1976, with the changes going into effect on January 1, 1978. Under the old law, a copyright had a term of 28 years and could be renewed for another 28. The new law eliminated copyright renewal and created a single term of the author’s life plus 70 years.

If your book had been published just a couple of years earlier, and the first term of the copyright had not been renewed by either you or the publisher, your book would have entered the public domain at the end of the 28th year and neither you nor the publisher would own the copyright. However, for works copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977, the new and amended copyright law provides for an automatic 47 year renewal without any requirement that the renewal be registered with the copyright office. Your book, therefore, is still protected by copyright. Now the question is, who owns the copyright during the term of renewal. The law says that ONLY the author may claim renewal, and that’s you. The publisher, even if still in business, has lost all rights in the work.

You should definitely claim your renewal by registering it with the copyright office. To do that, obtain Form RE from the Copyright Office and follow the instructions. In order to properly fill out the form, you will need a copy of the original registration or the original registration number. To find that, you’ll probably have to search the Copyright Office records or hire someone to do it for you. There are copyright search firms that can do this quickly or you can pay the copyright office to do it for you, although this can take some time. The Copyright Office charges a reasonable hourly fee to search and most searches take less than an hour, but there can be a time lag before you get the search results. The private search firms charge more, but you can get results within a day or two. You can get more information about renewal of copyrights by calling the Renewals Section of the Copyright Office at (202) 707-8180.

Any author of a work copyrighted between January 1, 1964 and December 31, 1977 should protect the work by renewing the copyright registration. This is particularly important if the original copyright was assigned to the publisher or someone else, because only the author is entitled to renew and you can get those lost rights back by completing the renewal process.

Disclaimer: 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. Readers are reminded that this information is for general information only and that any specific legal problems should be discussed with an attorney. Questions are presented anonymously, with the asker’s privacy protected. Some are composites based on issues I have been asked about in the past. Some were asked at workshops and conferences where I have presented. (more…)

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.

Does an editor have a copyright in my article?

December 8, 2014

Tags: Author Law, Writing, Sallie Randolph, Authorlaw, Copyright, 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 sent an article query to a major woman’s magazine. To make a very long story a little shorter, the editor liked the idea, then convinced me to turn it into a personal essay, and she added some good stuff to it. But it took so long for it to get anywhere at the magazine that after, a couple months I sent it to a news magazine. The first magazine had it for about five months when the second called and said they wanted it. I told the second editor about the first magazine and said I'd have to see and get back to her. I informed the first editor that another publication wanted it. I told her that I was happy to have her magazine publish it, but I'd need to know this week. She acted quite outraged and hinted that because she gave me the idea for my essay she somehow co-owns the copyright. Is she being ridiculous? I hope so.

A: She is wrong! The editorial process does not give the editor an ownership stake in the copyright or the right to sue for infringement. A joint copyright must be intended from the beginning. This is still your work. She had ample time to push your essay through the editorial decision making process and she took too long. You had every right to submit your work elsewhere, even if it included her editorial enhancements.

To be on the safe side, though, you should register your copyright in the published version as soon as it comes out. If you have other published articles from this year to register at the same time, you can register all your articles for the same fee. When registering multiple published articles you use a form GR in addition to Form TX. It’s not difficult, but registration of published articles from periodicals can’t be done on line. http://www.copyright.gov/forms/formgr_tx.pdf. The effort is well worth it.

And speaking of registering your copyright:

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: That is a common myth. Real protection comes from registering your copyright, which is a fairly straightforward procedure. The United States Copyright Office has a wealth of information about how to get this done. http://www.copyright.gov. All authors should get to know this invaluable site.