Copyright Basics For Authors

by Maria Granovsky

I’d like to discuss the rather unsexy subject of rights and responsibilities. As in, “your rights as a writer and responsibilities as the consumer of other people’s creative endeavors.” And before you pelt me with rotten tomatoes, or worse yet, click away, I promise to make this painless and show you lots of pictures, including one of a cute kitten.

A copyright is created when an idea is fixed in tangible form. For writers, once we’ve written the words down, we have a copyright in our work. Registering the copyright with the Copyright Office isn’t necessary, but it’s still a very good thing to do (just in case you’ve written the next Harry Potter). Registering the copyright makes it easier to sue the hordes who will copy your work.

The Internet has made violating copyrights ridiculously easy. In fact, many people (including me on occasion) do it without thinking, and without realizing that we’re committing a tort. An article catches your interest in an online publication to which you subscribe but which is protected by a paywall. You copy and paste the contents into an email and send it around to your friends who don’t subscribe to this publication. That’s copyright infringement.

Here’s an example: You see a cute picture of a kitten and you post it on your blog. Like so. Unless the website you took it from is the photographer’s website, and it explicitly states that you can copy the image with no strings attached, chances are you infringed on the copyright of the person who took the picture.

Another example: a famous landmark – say the Colosseum in Rome – is key to an article you’re writing and you want to illustrate it. If you take a photo from a website without permission, you may get a nastigram (potentially from a lawyer) asking you to either pay for the use of the image, or stop using it.

Beware of borrowing photos from websites that display restrictions, such as the following: RESTRICTIONS ON USE OF MATERIALS language: “ … No material … may be copied, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way, except that you may download one copy of the materials on any single computer for your personal, non-commercial home use only, provided you keep intact all copyright and other proprietary notices.”

So how can you illustrate articles and blog posts without running into copyright issues? Well, if you have been to Rome yourself and taken a photograph of the Colloseum, you can use your own picture, like this:

Or you could go to a stock photography service, such as Getty Images and buy a photo from them. (Refer to Molly’s post, Blog Image Sources That Won’t Get You Sued, for more ideas.)

And here’s my own embarrassing confession, especially considering the kind of law I practice: the first drafts of Poison Pill, my legal thriller, included the words to an ABBA song, The Day Before You Came. My editor pointed them out and reminded me that these words are copyrighted, and I’d have to seek permission from the copyright owner to include them. The novel was published without these lyrics, and apparently hasn’t suffered much from their deletion.

Finally, you may be curious as to why some people use photos to which they have neither the copyright nor the permission to use. They MAY be taking advantage of a legal doctrine called the doctrine of fair use, using photographs for educational purposes and not seeking to profit from their use. These circumstances may offer a defense against a charge of copyright infringement. This also leads me to the standard disclaimer that lawyers always throw in: none of the above is legal advice. Please consult an attorney if you have a specific situation involving a copyright question.

Maria Granovsky uses her international travels and her background as a cancer biologist and lawyer to craft fast-paced, intricately plotted capers, where the protagonists rely on their wits rather than their brawn, and the body count rises only as much as is necessary. 

Note from Molly: Check out my novels on Amazon, join my Reader’s Club for freebies and book news, and follow me on Twitter. This original content is copyright protected. Thank you so much. Mwah!

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