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Monday, August 9, 2010

Copyrights (and wrongs)

So, like many writers, I have a sort of soundtrack for each novel as I work on it... music that gets me in the right mindset or relates somehow to the action of the scenes I'm writing. A song, after all, is just another way to tell a story, and so it is no surprise that many writers find themselves moved by lyrics. And what moves you, moves your characters, yes?

Well, however moved you may be by those lyrics, you should make every effort to keep them OUT of your novel.

What you may not realize is that, just as you hope your novel will be, the lyrics are copyrighted. And if you want to include lyrics to which you do not personally own the rights, a publisher would have to get permission from the copyright holder, which is an added hurdle and potential expense.

Titles, however, be they song titles or book titles, are not copyrighted. Which, incidentally, means there is nothing legally stopping you from querying "Gone with the Wind" or "Romeo and Juliet" (but plenty of logistical reasons, natch. And not exactly the way you want to get an agent or editor's attention).

Another copyright wrong involves fictional characters that you yourself did not create. In other words, however fascinating your novel about the adventures of little Albus Severus Potter or how compelling the high jinx that ensue when the Marvel heroes meet the crew of the Enterprise, it's not publishable, because you don't have the rights to those characters.

In a related wrong, you'll probably also want to avoid fictional stories where main characters are real people. Meaning, that novel where Princess Diana travels back in time and causes her own deadly crash will need to stay trunked. ;)

What other copyright traps can you guys come up with?

H. L. Dyer, M.D. writes women's fiction and works as the Clinical and Academic Director for the Hospitalist Program at a pediatric teaching hospital near Chicago. In addition to all things literary, she enjoys experimental cooking and composing impromptu parodies to annoy close friends and family. Click to visit her personal blog, Trying to Do the Write Thing.


Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Good post! We do see alternate histories with historical characters, though--Abraham Lincoln taking on vampires, that sort of thing.

With Diana, I'm not sure about the legalities, but it would strike me as unseemly. It's not been so long since she was lost to the world.

Steve Westover said...

Thank you for the post. Could it be a copyright infringement to use a known legend or characters from that legend as a jumping off point for a novel.

Claire Goverts said...

Images can be another copyright trap for writers. On various forums and sometimes websites I've seen people using various images from the web to represent their characters (or their books). There are stock photographs that are alright to use with proper credit, but other times people forget that images also have a copyright.

kathrynjankowski said...

When you sell all rights to a story (say a short story for a magazine), the buyer of those rights now legally owns every character in that story as well.

So if you have further plans for those characters, think twice about selling all rights.

Gay said...

Great info... but I have a question. How is it, then, that so many authors start each chapter with a piece of a poem, a snatch of lyric or whatever? What is it that they do that keeps them from landing in hot water?

The easy answer would be to gather material that is in the public domain, but many I've seen do not. Many grab timely information that is copyrighted, and in the back of the book, there's a list as to where the rest of the poem, song, etc., can be obtained. Is this a "once you're an established author" sort of thing, or is there another secret?

Thanks. I love this blog.

Silke said...

Gay, to answer your question - it depends on the poem.
A lot of old poetry is in the public domain and can be quoted. (Try http://www.bibliomania.com for some of them. But there are other sources too.)
For instance, Shakespeare is no longer copyrighted - he died 400 years or so ago. Usually the copyright expires about 70 years after the original author dies, unless there are provisions made in the will and the rights go to someone else.
So the poems they use are likely public domain -- but it bears checking thoroughly if you quote anything.

Silke said...

Ooops I meant to say, any copyrighted ones - they may have contacted the author and obtained permission to quote (in WRITING!) in exchange for a reference source.
It really depends on the author/author relationship and deals.
But I can tell you that one line from a Beatles song will set you back a good $750+ if you want to quote it.

roh morgon said...

You mention music lyrics in our writing...but what about those bloggers who have a music player on their blog? Are they in danger of being sued by the artists whose music they play?

How sad, if true. I always enjoy discovering new music from our blogging community!

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

To be copyrighted it must have gone through legal documentation, correct? Years ago (when I was much much younger) I was told about something called a poor man's copyright. Which now I'm told is a myth so to speak...I keep seeing blog friends with little statements on their blogs that everything on their blogs is copyrighted, but I don't think that can be true unless they go throught he legal process at the Library of Congress. Am I incorrect? Or can you copyright your blog?

kathrynjankowski said...

Sharon: Anything you write is automatically copyrighted as soon as you put the words down. HOWEVER, you can only collect damages for copyright infringement if you legally register your work.

Also–and I posted about this on my blog on 11/30/09–if you use Blogger (a Gooogle service), under the Terms of Use you are giving Google
" . . . a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive licence [sic] to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. . . ."

So, yes, technically your blogspot content is copyrighted, but Google owns it, too.

I don't know the Terms of Use for LiveJournal blogs, but they should be easy enough to find if you use their service.

Hope this helps.


Silke said...

Roh, you mention an interesting point.
Yes, most of the stuff I find on the web music wise is copyrighted in one way or another.
Also, the "Poor Man's Copyright" might refer to the UK Copyright.
There is no copyright registration in the UK. Everything you create is automatically copyrighted, but you have to be able to prove it's yours.
The way this is often done, is by mailing (special delivery, signed for, dated) the work to yourself and then not opening it.
It means it's date stamped and official, although all it really proves is that the material was in your possession at the time of mailing -- not that you created it.
For that you need to keep hold of all your drafts etc, to show the creative process.
Ergo, what you could do is include a disk with the drafts and everything inside the envelope you send yourself, as well as the prints of the contents. (That's what I do.)
Hope that helps.

Stina said...

Great post, Heather! I borrowed lyrics from an Aerosmith song for one novel, thinking I'd worry about getting permission to use them if I ever landed a book contract. But then I found out it would be next to impossible and, at the very least, expensive to get permission. In the end, I wrote my own lyrics, which fit the theme of the story better than the Aerosmith ones. :)