Highlights on Copyright & Publishing from the Indie Author Conference

Rockin' my Magic Red Chucks at the Changing Hands Indie Author Conference - Photo by Jeff Moriarty (used with permission)

Rockin’ my Magic Red Chucks at the Changing Hands Indie Author Conference – Photo by Jeff Moriarty (used with permission)

I had the pleasure of speaking at the Changing Hands Indie Author Conference over the weekend. It was a day packed with sessions for indie authors and aspiring indie authors on how to publish and market a book. I did two sessions called “Legally Speaking” on how copyright applies to book writers. Here are the top 10 highlights from my presentation and the audience’s questions.

1. You have copyright rights in your work the moment your ideas are captured in any tangible medium (paper, computer file, etc.). You still have your rights even if you forget to put a copyright notice in your book.

2. Having a copyright gives you the exclusive right to copy, display, distribute, perform, and make derivative works based on your work. These rights last for the duration of your life, plus 70 years if your work was created after January 1, 1978.

Close-up of my Magic Red Chucks - photo by Pam Slim (used with permission)

Close-up of my Magic Red Chucks – photo by Pam Slim (used with permission)

3. You don’t have to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office to get your rights. You do have to register if you want to sue for infringement.

4. You should submit you application to register the copyright in your book before you make it available for sale.

5. If you live in a community property state (like Arizona), copyrights acquired during the marriage are community property unless you have a prenuptial agreement or spousal agreement that states otherwise.

6. Make sure you understand the difference between a copyright assignment and a copyright license. In the former, you give away your copyright rights; in the latter you retain copyright ownership but grant someone permission to use some of your rights.

7. If you are incorporating other works, characters from existing works, or trademarked products, consult an attorney to make sure you understand what legal risks you’re taking with your project.

8. You will need works made for hire contracts or copyright assignments for artists who contribute to your book (i.e., illustrations, graphics, forward or afterward by another writer, cover art) to give you the copyright in what they create. Consider adding a provision to the contract that states the contributor indemnifies you if you’re accused of copyright infringement because of their contribution.

9. When you create a budget for your book, plan to pay for a lawyer for a few hours to draft or review your contracts. Use a copyright lawyer, not your lawyer buddy who specializes in personal injury law.

10. If you have a publisher, read your contracts carefully to make sure you understand what rights you’re giving up (if any) and how and when you’ll be paid. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand because you’ll probably be stuck with the contract as long as it’s not illegal. Never be afraid to ask for clarification.

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Publishing Contracts: Copyright Assignment vs Copyright License

The best analogy for copyright is a jar of markers where each marker represents one of your rights - 10 things: Sharpies by Crystl from Flickr

The best analogy for copyright is a jar of markers where each marker represents one of your rights – 10 things: Sharpies by Crystl from Flickr

I had the pleasure of speaking about the legalities of publishing at Changing Hands Indie Author Conference on February 9, 2013. My session covered the basics of copyright, the importance of registering your copyrights and publishing contracts. I wanted to do a recap of the two types of publishing contracts from a copyright perspective: copyright assignments and copyright licenses.

A copyright is the rights you get in your work. Your rights are created the instant you have an original work of authorship fixed in a tangible medium. As the copyright holder, you have the exclusive right to copy, distribute, display, perform, and make derivative works based on your original work. If you want to let someone publish your work, you need a copyright assignment or a copyright license. This should be a signed contract between the parties and it should be explicit about the rights you’re giving up (if any) and what you will get in return.

Copyright Assignment
When you give someone a copyright assignment, you give them your copyright. When you have a copyright assignment, you do not own your copyright anymore; the other party does. If you publish your work after you assign it to someone, you will be committing copyright infringement, even though you were the original author of the work. Some publishers require you to assign your copyright to them or else they won’t publish your work.

If you give someone a copyright assignment and you later regret the decision, you have to buy your copyright back from them. I know at least one artist who sold the copyright in his work and later purchased it back because it was more lucrative for him to control it.

Copyright License
If you grant someone a copyright license, you retain ownership of your copyright and you give the other party permission to use some or all of your copyright rights. You may grant a publisher the rights to publish your work in print and/or as an ebook but retain the right to create an audio version of your work. J.K. Rowling retained her internet rights to the Harry Potter series when she negotiated her contract with her publishers, which is why she could create Pottermore.

If you license your work, the license should explicit state whether the license is exclusive or non-exclusive, time-limited or perpetual, and clearly state how you will be compensated for granting the other party the license.

Publishing contracts are complicated and it’s best to have a lawyer review the contract before you sign it to ensure you understand what rights you’re giving up and what rights you get to keep. As always, if there’s a portion of a contract that you don’t understand, don’t sign it.

I also created a video this week about the difference between copyright assignments and copyright licenses here.


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