The Atlantic recently published this alarming article about the rise of plagiarism in the self-publishing world, whether the works being uploaded are out of print or currently on the market.
Since there is no oversight of this DIY publishing industry (yet), it’s fairly easy and increasingly common for con “artists” to replicate an existing work and pass it off as their own. This is apparently an especially frequent malpractice in the popular Romance genre, which tends to be more formulaic than other genres (generally speaking).
Many times the victim isn’t aware of this rip-off until and unless a savvy reader discovers the similarities and alerts the author directly, especially if the book was self-published.
Unfortunately, indie authors are the easiest target, since they don’t have the official “shield” of a publishing company, and the bigger the company, the bigger the shield, at least legally.
For writers fending for themselves in this cold, cruel world, it’s necessary to take every precaution to prevent your work from being illegally duplicated.
This crime is not only financially unfair, but it can be morally dispiriting, since it’s essentially a form of identity theft. No one wants his or her own creative blood, sweat and tears co-opted by a stranger.
Signed, Sealed and Delivered
In my youth I often mailed Xeroxed copies of my manuscripts to myself and kept the envelopes sealed, since the postmark basically proved my original authorship by literally stamping a date on it via an official agency. That’s how I understood it, anyway.
That’s not longer necessary for multiple reasons, the most obvious being many books nowadays are digitally published anyway.
Ever since 1978, when the copyright law was updated, protections of intellectual properties have very much favored the creator, starting with the inception of the creation itself, not just its publication.
This is somewhat antiquated definition of publication according to the U.S. laws:
"Publication" is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.
The United States Copyright Office has a very detailed explanation of the sundry pre-and-post-1978 laws on their website. It is fairly user-friendly and short on “legalese.”
But if that’s still too complex to comprehend, given all the variations and qualifications, Cornell University breaks down the rules in this convenient online graph, which is much easier to reference quickly.
According to that chart, if the work was published after 2002, which is most likely the case for anyone reading this, here is all you need to know about the length of your copyright: 70 years after the death of author. If a work of corporate authorship, 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.
So this means if you sign a contract with a publisher, your protections are expanded, of course – but then so is your ownership over your own property, since depending on the deal, the publisher might choose to cease publication of a work without returning the rights to its author.
Most of the time you can demand all rights as a matter of practical and legal recourse, but if you don’t have an agent or lawyer to look over the contract for you, make sure to study all the fine print.
If a publisher goes out of business, typically that means all rights automatically revert to the author, but again, make sure that is specifically clarified in the contract.
Indie Body Armor
In order to protect yourself, you should always include the following information on the copyright page of your eBook and it’s printed cousin:
Cover design by…
Cover art by…
Interior design by…
And of course that familiar little “c” thingy, for example: © 2016 Thrillville Press (or Will Viharo if the book is published by someone else, just to cover my assets.)
You can also add this traditional “warning statement”:
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher (which can mean you).
According to the most popular reference guide on the subject, The Copyright Handbook, the latter is no longer required, but just to be safe, I’d include it anyway. Doesn’t cost you anything extra to be extra safe.
In the next column I’ll discuss which famous literary characters have fallen into the public domain and are safe to cast in your own fiction.
Meantime, keep your friends close and your books closer…
IMAGES: WILL VIHARO