Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In the quaint but recent past, dominated as it was by traditional publishing and traditional employment, most writers didn’t have to worry too much about legal ins and outs. Yes, there were writers whose work was banned for being too controversial, and there were even writers who got locked up or sent into exile for their seditious views, but in terms of worrying about humdrum admin, contracts, and copyright law, past writers had less to worry about.
With the advent of self-publishing, information-age freelancing, and self-styled author-entrepreneurs, all that legal nitty-gritty which was once handled by the legal departments at publishing houses or companies now falls on the shoulders of writers. And for the popular writerly stereotype, that’s a nightmare.Taxes, contracts, and copyright are all pressing concerns for self-published authors.Click To Tweet
But don’t worry; while the legal obligations facing writers are important to know about, they’re not particularly multitudinous or complicated. As such, I’ve compiled this handy guide. The following information isn’t legal advice, but it should help you assess where you stand.
Taxes can get a lot more complicated when you work for yourself, and self-published and freelance writers have the added headache of accounting for multiple projects, sometimes for very different clients.
The simplest answer is to hire an accountant to sort it out for you. This isn’t as expensive as you might think and saves hours of headaches. If you do choose to wade through that paper hell yourself, come prepared; keep track of your outgoings and incomings, work out what you can claim as expenses, save your receipts, and make sure to budget through the year for whatever you expect to owe. You’ll also have to remain aware of ongoing projects; just because you published last year doesn’t mean you can forget that source of income.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore your taxes; if you do, you could face hefty fines and some seriously scary legal action (besides, you’d be failing in your civic duty).
I recently wrote an article about negotiating contracts, so I won’t go into detail here, but know that it’s vital you present and sign a written contract before you take on work (if you’re a freelance writer) or traditionally publish (if you’re an author).If you’re writing freelance, even just a single article, you need some form of contract.Click To Tweet
If you don’t want or can’t afford to have an attorney write up a contract, you can find templates online. If you don’t use a contract, at least make sure to have both parties explicitly agree via email to the exact terms of the deal, and then save those emails. These will help you out in any sticky legal situations.
Trade descriptions and author claims
This one should go without saying. Don’t lie, don’t make up references or testimonials, and don’t make misleading claims. This isn’t your resume; there’s no such thing as a bit of harmless embellishment here, and by furnishing your website or book cover copy with untrue claims, you could land yourself in some serious legal trouble.
Remember, if you’re using client testimonials or author endorsements on your website, you have to gain their written permission first! Critical reviews published in the public domain are fine to quote.
If you’re feeling especially adult, you’ll want to ponder the question of insurance. If you work from home, either as a freelance writer or a commercial author, you may expect work damages or losses to be covered by your home insurance. However, you may be surprised by how limited and/or specific the clauses are.
You’d be better off with public liability insurance, which covers you against any loss or damage to your home office, ensuring you’ll avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Everyone knows about copyright – it’s the process by which you mark your work as yours, forbidding others from copying, reproducing, or selling it without your permission. We’ve written about copyright in relation to writing and self-publishing before, but it’s worth going over some key points so you’re sure about your legal obligations.
Firstly, make sure to include a copyright note on the verso page of your book including the © symbol (or the word ‘Copyright’ or abbreviation ‘Copr.’), the year of publication, and the copyright owner’s name (probably yours). Next, it’s worth paying the fee to register your copyright. While non-registered copyright is still valid, most legal action requires registration.
These precautions should help you if someone tries to use your work without your permission. But what if you want to use other people’s copyrighted materials?
Images and graphics
If you’re writing nonfiction in particular, you may want to reproduce some images, graphics, or graphs you found online in your book. Well, hold your horses; before you go saving images, make sure you’re not robbing anyone. Google Images, after all, isn’t some free marketplace of commercial resources.
Instead, use public domain images or stock photos found on dedicated websites and explicitly cleared for commercial use. Alternatively, seek the permission of the image/graphic/graph’s creator (though this can be easier said than done) or, if all else fails, either produce your own images or pay someone to do it for you.Images you find online aren’t automatically free to use. Stick to the public domain or prepare to pay.Click To Tweet
Since you can’t borrow snippets or fragments of images/graphics in the same way you can quote books, songs, or movies, I’d suggest against relying on fair use as a defense for your image-swiping; you’re reproducing the whole work, not just a sample.
Text and lyrics
I’ve talked about quoting books, movies, songs, and poems before, but it’s worth reiterating here: use only what’s absolutely necessary and avoid quoting anything that could in any way render the quoted text redundant (e.g. a quote giving away a thriller’s plot twist). Fair use isn’t a catch-all protection, but it does favor new creations.
Brand names and trademarks
Many books rely on recognizable trademarks to enrich their story’s worlds or else to make a point. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is the most famous and most extreme example of this creed in action, but there are many others. When throwing Coca-Cola or Google or Hershey’s into your own writing, however, be mindful of ‘trademark dilution’ and ‘trademark tarnishment’.
Basically, these are legal theories describing, respectively, the dilution of a brand or trademark through overexposure (for example, how ‘to Google something’ is shorthand for using an internet search, and how in Scotland all soft drinks are ‘Coke’, not just Coca-Cola), and the tarnishing or denigration of brands/trademarks; that is, the criticism of them.Creative works enter you into a legal landscape more complex than the everyday. Know the consequences before you publish.Click To Tweet
Many huge corporations have taken legal action to counter perceived trademark dilution and trademark dilution, so be careful. Tarnishment in particular can legally be the equivalent of defamation, and if you’re self-publishing, you don’t have a big traditional publisher’s legal team behind you (which, presumably, is how Bret Easton Ellis was able to avoid being dragged to court).
Do your time
I get it: you’re a writer. You didn’t sign up for legalese, tax forms, or copyright claims, but being familiar with this admittedly dry information could save you money and even keep you out of legal trouble.
By staying mindful of and accounting for your legal obligations, you can worry less about them and focus your energy on what matters: the writing itself.
What helps you keep on top of your legal obligations? Do you have any horror stories from when you first started out? Let me know in the comments, and check out What To Do If A Website Has Stolen Your Work and How To Negotiate A Better Writing Contract for more great advice on this topic.