Legal Checklist for Self-Publishing Authors
When you think about the legal side of self-publishing, you may believe that all you need to do is stamp an introductory page with a copyright symbol, and call it “done”.
However, there are other facets to consider before publishing your book.
Traditional publishers, of course, would run everything by their in-house lawyers and take care of all of these things for you. But as a self-publisher, the burden is on your shoulders.
I’m not an attorney, and this certainly isn’t a substitute for real legal expertise. But here’s a layperson’s legal checklist.
Let’s start with the most familiar term, copyrighting. You’ve heard – and it’s true to an extent — that your writing is copyrighted the minute it’s created. But for the best legal protection against would-be plagiarists and pilferers, it’s a good idea to register your work through the Copyright Office for your country
Registering your copyright (through copyright.gov., in the United States) offers some added protections:
- Up to $150,000 recovery in statutory damages
- Protects your work for your lifetime plus 70 years
- Provides a legal record of content ownership
The fee varies and is a small price to pay when considering the specific coverage: kind of like a low-cost insurance policy for your hard work. If someone uses any of your material without permission and you wish to sue them for infringement, the body of work must be registered.
Poor Man’s Copyright
The “poor man’s copyright”, according to the U.S. Copyright Office, is the practice of sending your own work to yourself.
Stating — in writing — that you copyrighted the material is another interpretation of “poor man’s copyright.” This statement would (and should, always) appear on the copyright page inside your book, and consists of your name, the year of publication and the copyright symbol (©). For my book, Bestseller List: Financial Freedom through Writing, it looks like this:
Copyright © 2019 by Kitty Turner
You’ll want to include other “legalese” and important information on the copyright page, such as the rights reserved, disclaimer, and the name and address of the publisher. In short, you’re affirming in writing that nothing may be reproduced without prior written permission from the publisher.
You’ll also want to include the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) categories that apply to your book. The BISAC Subject Codes List, is used by companies throughout the supply chain to categorize books according to topical content, and can determine where the book is shelved or the genre(s) under which it can be searched for online.
Finally, you’ll want to note the edition of the specific body of work being published.
In traditionally published books, you’ll also see some typography such as a series of numbers and symbols. These are not anything you need to worry about in a print-on-demand situation.
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a trademark “is generally a word, phrase, symbol, or design, or a combination thereof, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.”
It’s probably not the first thing you think of, but when titling your book, it’s a good idea to do a trademark search and make sure your title is not already registered. And you may be surprised at what you find. I worked on a project where the book’s subtitle included the word “flotsam”, and a search revealed that the word was trademarked.
Trademarks are a bit more complicated than copyrights, and you can find more information than you could possibly want at uspto.gov.
As a writer, you’re likely familiar with this concept. You certainly don’t want any assertions in your book that can be considered libel. These would be defamatory statements made about another person that could affect their financial and/or psychological well-being: such as accusing someone of a crime, stating they have a mental or physical disability or making any sort of claim or statement about a person that could be harmful to them.
And, contrary to popular belief, even if an assertion is true, it can still be considered libelous if proven that it was made with malicious intent.
Stating the obvious: never copy someone else’s work or ideas and attempt to pass them off as your own.
Writing, at its core, is the sharing of ideas and ideals. There are times we want to share the words, or portions of work, of those who came before us. Most of us, as artists, would never dream of actually taking credit for another person’s body of work, but have legitimate reasons to want to share them with our readers.
Here are some easy ways to avoid plagiarism in your book:
- Cite your source
- Include quotations
Fair Use Doctrine
In the interest of freedom of expression, the use of copyright-protected material is permitted under the legal doctrine of fair use. Activities that may qualify as fair use include criticism or comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. Some factors considered in the determination of fair use are:
Purpose/character of use – whether the use is for commercial or nonprofit/educational purposes
Nature of the copyrighted work – the degree to which the work relates to the copyright’s purpose of encouraging creative expression
Amount/substantiality of the portion used as it relates to the body of copyrighted material – both the quality and quantity that is used
Effects on the future value of the copyrighted work.
Some legal experts suggest that using less than 250 words of copyrighted material, less than two lines from a song or poem, or less than ten percent of a piece of correspondence, is permissible under copyright laws.
Depending on the situation, it’s also a good idea to obtain written permission to use someone else’s material.
If there’s any doubt whether your use of material constitutes plagiarism, you can also use an online plagiarism checker to scan your work and highlight specific words or text.
Especially in today’s litigious climate, it’s good to cover all the “what-ifs”. Here’s a handy checklist you can download and print to help make sure you don’t overlook anything before publishing your book.