This post provides author tips on intellectual property, copyright, trademark, fair use, quote permissions, photo permissions and other challenging issues.
There are entire books written on these topics (and volumes of law as well), so my goal is to simply share a bit of working knowledge. You can tuck the links below into your stash of resources and refer to them when questions arise.
Remember, however, that as an author, you are responsible for the content of your manuscript. Be sure and research these topics yourself and add to your arsenal of knowledge. It’s also a very good idea (almost paramount these days) to find literary attorneys who specialize in projects like yours — an online search will point you to professionals in your state who specialize in literature and intellectual property.
What is Intellectual Property (IP)?
In a nutshell, intellectual property is your idea, invention, or process — a work derived from your own brain and original thoughts. This can be a literary work, a screenplay, an artistic design, a photograph, a song or other creative works.
Although Intellectual property is considered intangible (unlike, say, real estate), that doesn’t mean it’s not protected. Other people are regulated regarding the use your intellectual property. In general, no one can steal, copy, use, plagiarize or infringe on your intellectual property rights (although there are some fair use exceptions mentioned below).
The bottom line is that important protections exist for creatives like us, including writers, graphic designers, photographers, lyricists, artists, etc.
It works both ways. Your work should not be infringed upon… and you should not infringe upon the work of others. Note that a lot of this blog post involves what NOT to do as an author, since I work with author clients in the exciting, adventurous, and sometimes litigious world of words.
What Falls Under the Umbrella of Intellectual Property?
- Trade secrets
For the purpose of this blog post, we’ll stick to an overview of copyright, trademark and fair use.
Now, about your idea or invention… your copyright is in place the minute you express this idea or invention. That’s right. Just “thinking about it” isn’t enough. You own the copyright immediately when it becomes a fixed form (manuscript, photo, song).
However, to better protect your copyright, you can register it with the U.S. Copyright Office. It’s easier than it sounds and many people have navigated the copyright.gov site with ease. Others use services such as LegalZoom.com to help them through the process.
Trademark has to do with your business itself — your business name and brand, your logo and/or your slogan. The United State Patent and Trademark Office is where you register these trademarks. It’s an amazing site for business owners who wish to protect their intellectual property — click around to learn the in’s and out’s of trademark protections.
And check out the article below on the SecureYourTrademark.com website — it shares some horror stories about trademark infringement cases.
What is Fair use?
Here’s where things get sticky. Fair Use is an intellectual property doctrine that allows others to use your intellectual property in a limited and narrow manner — if they qualify.
I recommend a quick read by attorney Rich Stim on the Stanford University Libraries website. He covers the concepts of 1) commentary and criticism, or 2) parody in Fair Use — a good overview.
For writers specifically, below is an excellent article on fair use and copyright on The Book Designer website.
Once you read it, I think you’ll have a good grasp of the four litmus tests of fair use:
The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
The nature of the copyrighted work;
The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
I’m a member of the Author’s Alliance, an excellent organization for resources and advice. Check out the organization’s website for author tips on fair use.
Author Tips for Books — Using Quotes
So… say you want to use quotes in your book. Great, but be sure and check how to legally use these quotations. I’m pointing you to The Book Designer again and recommend the link below — a thorough review of what and what not to do.
Author Tips for Using Photographs or Images
No, you can’t use an image from the internet for your book cover without obtaining permission. Every image you see was created by someone, and that someone owns the copyright. In general, you can’t use images from any print or online source without permission to do so.
I’ll point you again to the Authors Alliance website. It features Lois Farfel Stark, an award-winning filmmaker, author, and Authors Alliance member who weighs in on the efforts she made to properly source and use photography with permission in her book The Telling Image: Shapes of Changing Times. The article is a recommended read to help understand the importance of contacting copyright holders.
Note that I refer UK authors to the Copyright Hub for links and advice for photography permissions.
Author Tips for Screenwriters
Copyright for screenplays can be extremely complex. Copyrightuser.org is my go-to for information, and I recommend Mary Westmacott’s article below to better understand the multiple rights involved in a film.