Know your copy rights

Being informed about copyright is essential for self-publishing authors.
Being informed about copyright is essential for self-publishing authors.

Writers beware. This summer an article in The Atlantic magazine detailed an unfortunate trend facing professionals in the world of self-publishing: an increasing number of authors are finding that their works are being plagiarised. And when trying to trace the falsely proclaimed authors of these works, it’s often the case that their true identities are nearly impossible to track down.

Plagiarism is the act of using someone else’s work as if it was your own. This is slightly different from copyright infringement, which means using someone else’s work without securing their permission first. Both of these regulations are important for authors of any kind to understand; in the world of self-publishing, it’s even more important to familiarise yourself with the rules as you don’t have a publisher’s legal department available to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

For authors self-publishing through Amazon, for example, the electronic commerce giant keeps 30 percent of royalties each time a self-published book is purchased. When publishing with Amazon’s Kindle, the Kindle Direct Publishing terms and conditions require that you hold the publishing rights to any content you upload to sell in the Kindle Store. Unlike traditional publishers though, Amazon is not liable if it publishes a book that violates copyright, but is protected as long as the content is taken down.

Although Amazon and Kindle dominate most ebook markets, there are other self-publishing options to keep an eye out for. Tolino, an alliance of German book stores such as Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Club Bertelsmann and Libri, created their own ebook platform, e-readers and tablets, giving Amazon healthy competition. A recent study by BoD found that 90% of German authors choose to self-publish so they can have control over their content, marketing and rights.

In most European countries, the U.S. and Canada, authors, artists and speakers own an automatic copyright to the works they create. Authors also have the option to register their copyright, and the potential consequences of not doing so vary from country to country. Sometimes the benefit of registering is simply having legal proof of your creation’s copyright, should an issue arise. In the U.S., a registered copyright is a prerequisite for filing a copyright infringement lawsuit. It’s important to research the rules that apply in your country and if you’re still unsure, to check with legal counsel.

Lexology offers a cross-border guide on copyright with up-to-date (2016) rules in countries including Australia, Netherlands, Germany, United Kingdom and the U.S. ICLG (International Comparative Legal Guides) also has a free online resource on 2016 copyright laws with individual chapters covering 30 jurisdictions. Simply browsing WikiHow’s guide on how to register copyright under common law is a good place to get an understanding of how the registration process works.

Ensuring that you don’t accidentally overstep

True or false? You’re out for a stroll in Paris one evening and you pass by a stunning light show on the Eiffel Tower. If you take an original photograph, you’re free to use it in the book you’re planning to self-publish.

False. This light display is technically artwork, which means that you’d need permission from the artist in order to publish the photo. In fact, it would actually be illegal to share the photo on social media.

Taking original photos is one of three options that self-publishing authors have for images inside or on the cover of their books, as described by writer and photographer Jean Gill on the online Self Publishing Advice Center. It may seem straightforward to take your own photos, but people, certain buildings, and artworks, for example, all have to be cleared for permissions.

A second option is to use a photo under Creative Commons licensing or in the public domain. When searching for images using Google, you can use Search Tools to filter by license. Be sure to read the small print to ensure that you’re properly citing a photo (some Creative Commons licenses require attribution) and that if you’re modifying a photo, you’re permitted to do so.

Another option is to purchase royalty free stock photos. Royalty free means that any models, artwork, etc. in the images have been cleared.

To complicate matters further, there are editorial exceptions in some countries, where people in photos don’t have to be cleared, as with photo-journalism or other non-fiction works such as travel books. These exceptions may not be in effect for minors, however.

The best policy when self-publishing is always to air on the safer side. Get permission, read the fine print, research and credit both sources and creators (i.e. photographers) for use of their work. If you’re writing fiction and curious whether you can reference a character in another published work, perform your due diligence. Some authors not only copyright their books but also individual characters to ensure that only they can benefit from exploitation such as merchandise creation.

Lastly, don’t let this information become intimidating and prevent you from collaborating with other creators. At the end of the day, the rules surrounding copyright are designed to protect people’s hard work, including your own.

Interested in learning more about copyright rules for self-publishers? Let us know your questions and we’ll answer them in a future blog post. Get in touch at