Copyright Basics For Authors

I’m honored to host attorney and debut novelist Maria Granovsky, who is here to share information about copyright pertinent to all authors and bloggers:

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 (awesome song, especially as performed by Blancmange.  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.

Thank you for reading, I hope this commentary helps. I’d like to reward you with another picture of a cute kitten, but I haven’t taken any. Hope you find this mutt a decent consolation prize and as adorable as I do!

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. Follow Maria on Twitter and Facebook.

Maria’s legal thriller POISON PILL is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It’s the drug of the century, a miracle weight loss compound worth billions, invented by Jon Vickers shortly before his death. So why is Jon’s brother Benedict risking his inheritance, his brother’s legacy, and even his own life to keep the drug from the market? And why is Olga Mueller, a jaded lawyer Benedict met by chance while traveling to Istanbul, willing to help? Can they take on a powerful venture capitalist and a ruthless top-tier law firm and win? Or even survive? In a world where money rules, does truth stand a chance?

Additional Resources: Intellectual property attorney explains copyright and public domain when posting on social media

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9 Responses to Copyright Basics For Authors

  1. Anne R. Allen December 10, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Excellent post. Very useful. I think all beginning authors try to use song lyrics in their fiction. i sure did. But self-pubbers can have some very nasty bills from the copyright holders if they do it. It’s just better to never, ever use lyrics, unless they’re from songs that are at least a hundred years old.

    • Molly Greene December 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

      Anne, I wrote half a novel all around song lyrics — acccck! My musical character had to get reigned in when I learned about copyright. Better late than too late!

  2. Susan Spence December 13, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    I never was clear on some of those things, although I’ve steered away from using song lyrics in my novels because I thought it might get complicated. Thanks for the info.

    • Molly Greene December 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

      Susan, thanks so much for the read and comment!

  3. Kandie (@KanKan929) December 17, 2012 at 10:45 am #

    Enjoyed the post. Great information, and definitely a reminder/ refresher for those who have gotten too comfortable with the ease of grabbing images/text from websites.

    • Molly Greene December 17, 2012 at 12:12 pm #

      The Internet has changed our lives in so many ways hasn’t it? Easy access to fabulous images is only one. They should all come with a note: Look, don’t touch! Thanks so much for your read and comment.

  4. Melia Alexander February 10, 2013 at 6:35 am #

    Great post! I often wondered about photos on my blog, and followed my instinct: use my own. The song lyrics was a revelation. . ..

  5. Stephanie Faris November 4, 2013 at 5:08 am #

    I think this is an issue everyone needs to review from time to time. Usually, with blogs, it doesn’t become an issue unless your blog is actually read by a large number of people! Those free use image sites usually have nothing good on them. When I have to get a good image, I usually go somewhere like iStockPhoto and choose a low-quality (small) version of an image that’s only one credit.

  6. Michael Fox November 23, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    Hi, Molly. Thanks for hosting Maria’s great post. I’d like to comment from the other side of the issue, having content “used” as opposed to using others’ content.

    I was once a photographer. I had a website from which I sold images as wall décor. From time-to-time, I came across my images posted elsewhere by other people, occasionally giving me credit with a backlink to my site; but more often, not.

    Over time, I came to believe it was an act of ignorance. With the Internet standing between us, they failed to recognize me, the artist, as a person. These same people, if my neighbor, surely would not enter my home and leave with a picture from off my wall.

    My point being: we live during an age of depersonalization. Increasingly, I think those who put creative value on the table must accept this as the new norm.

    We should incorporate it into our business plan. Our goal should be to build audience: a dedicated, loyal audience. Our audience can become our friends. Our neighbors. They’ll respect the opportunity to visit us. They won’t steal from us. Instead, they’ll introduce us to their friends who, hopefully, will become our friends.

    Those others, who visit us and, like in that great movie, Airplane, will take some pictures and go; well, they are not our target audience anyway. Still, might they be useful?

    My thinking is: having acquired content, it may touch them. They may redeem themselves and become a friend or, more likely, may tell their friends about us, who may become our friends.

    As an author, I think having eyes on pages may be the most critical aspect of my marketing efforts. I’m presently trying to convince myself that the “picture takers” may end up helping my efforts in the long run. Though I’m certainly open to opinion on this topic.

    Sorry for the ramble. I’ve just thought about this a lot over the years.