So near and yet so far.
Your final book manuscript is in your hands.
It’s been researched, it’s been edited, and it’s looking good. Congratulations – you’ve achieved what few other people manage, which is to finish your book.
But before you press publish, there’s the small matter of making sure there are no nasty legal surprises lurking behind the pages. Because if you’re found to have unwittingly transgressed copyright law after publication, you or your publisher will be faced with the prospect of making changes and even destroying copies that have already been printed – not a welcome task.
It would be a shame to let the long arm of the law spoil your launch party, so here’s how you can avoid any problems.
Copyright is the legal protection for someone’s work once their idea has been physically expressed. This could be through writing or the making of a film or image.
You’ll no doubt be aware of the concept of copyright, but not be sure exactly how it impacts on your book. Is it okay to use other people’s ideas and words? After all, none of us comes up with consistently original material – we ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’, learning from those who’ve paved the way before us.
But consider this: you wouldn’t want the authors of the future to swipe your material, would you? Aside from the ethical issues there are legal implications to doing this, so let’s take a look at where you stand when you want to pick other experts’ brains.
Of course, we’re not lawyers and this is not to be taken as legal advice. If you have any doubts, speak to your publisher or consult a legal boffin. It also depends on how you’re publishing your book. If you’re self-publishing you’ll bear the legal responsibility yourself; if you’re working with a publisher it depends on the contract you have with them.
Copyright and ideas
The good news is you can’t copyright an idea or concept, so you’re free to use ones generated by other people in your book. It’s good manners to credit them, though. Mention who you gained your idea from and even the book you read it in if that’s the case; this also presents you as well informed and up to date.
Copyright and words
You can, however, copyright words. When someone writes something and publishes it, whether it be in a book, their blog, a letter, or on any other platform, they automatically own the copyright to it. That means you can’t take their words and replicate them in your book without their permission. It doesn’t matter whether you credit them or not – the words are theirs.
If you quote a large amount of text for the purpose of critiquing or reviewing it, this affects you. You also need permission to use it for other purposes, such as taking a chunk of a poem to round off your book or to start a chapter with. Extracts from newspapers or magazines are a no-no, as are lifting illustrations, designs, and diagrams you’ve found elsewhere. Song lyrics are a definite one to stay away from as they’re owned by the music label (or whoever owns the copyright) and are notoriously hard to gain permission for.
This sounds onerous, but it’s not as restricting as it might seem because there are three main work-arounds. I’ve listed them here, but again I’m not a lawyer so if you’re in any doubt you need to seek expert advice.
The first is that in Europe, copyright only lasts during the author’s lifetime and for 70 years after the end of the year in which they died. So if you’re quoting from material dating from a long time ago, you’re probably fine.
The second is a legal allowance called ‘fair dealing’ which lets you quote other people’s words under certain circumstances. Fair dealing isn’t a law in itself and therefore isn’t watertight, but it provides guidance for the publishing profession.
The elements of fair dealing you’ll be interested in are:
- if your quote is no more than around 300 words, it’s fair dealing as long as you credit the author with their name, the title of the publication, the page number if relevant, the publisher, and when it was published. You can do this in a footnote like this: Author name, ‘Book Title’ page x, Publisher name, year of publication.
- in principle you can also quote up to half a page of play text or up to a total of 40 lines from a poem, as long as it’s not more than a quarter of the whole.
An exception to the fair dealing rule is when the quoted text sums up the meaning of the whole work, and thereby isn’t equivalent to a small element of it. Also, song titles are fine to quote as they’re considered to be in the public domain, even if the lyrics aren’t.
The third workaround (which isn’t strictly a workaround but a process) is to ask permission from whoever owns the copyright. That’s usually the publisher. They may not reply (because it’s a hassle for them) or if they do they may charge a fee, which can range from affordable to eye-watering. How much trouble you take will depend on the strength of your feeling about including the material, which may by now be sorely tested.
Copyright and images
There are similar legal protections for images. You can’t take someone else’s diagram, illustration, or photograph and use it in your book without their written permission. This was a huge disappointment to one author I spoke to who wanted to use various charts and diagrams he’d seen on websites, and made a fundamental difference to how he wrote his book. It’s always wise to check this first.
I’m guessing you may be wondering if you want to quote anything at all in your book now, but I’d encourage you to include what you feel strongly about. If it adds meaning, texture, and variety to your work it’s worth at least exploring if you can add it in. It may well fall under a fair dealing category in any case.
So if you want to quote, go ahead. Just do it within the law.
Ginny Carter ghostwrites authority-building books and self-help guides for entrepreneurs, thought-leaders, speakers, and coaches.