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Writing Tip: Keeping It Legal



No - this has nothing to do with pharmaceuticals or jailbait - it is a much more serious tip on how to avoid legal issues when publishing your writings. We thank KingdombytheSea for this great and very timely tip, as more and more authors are looking to take the plunge into being published. Enjoy!




Keeping it Legal




The Copyright Police do exist, and if you’re an author planning on publishing, it’s a good idea to keep that in mind.


When I wrote Social Skills and posted it on GA, I was blissfully unaware of having infringed on anyone’s copyrights. Because Connor is a violinist, music factors heavily into the story. In the second half of the book he joins a pit orchestra, and within those scenes I quoted a few lines of lyrics from a Kiss Me Kate song.


As I prepared Social Skills for publication this summer, I handed it off to a beta/author friend, who immediately questioned my use of the lyrics. A little Googling revealed that all lyrics from any Cole Porter musical are copyrighted, despite the fact that they can be found scattered across the internet (Here’s a page with copyright terms in the United States as of January 1, 2012). But could quoting just a few lines really get me in trouble?


Yes, it could. Even those lyrics sites can get in trouble, and though they may be too numerous to completely eradicate, some have already been sued. One just got hit with a $6.6 million default judgement a few days ago.


Bottom line: When you publish/post something that contains copyrighted material, there’s a chance that someone might see, object, and sue.


I didn’t want to risk it, so I took a second look at my work and decided to edit out the lyrics. Unfortunately, I’d really entangled them with the emotions of the scene, and cutting them out proved difficult. Meanwhile, my friend found a link to a site with information on Cole Porter’s Trust and encouraged me to poke around a bit and see what the legal process for obtaining permission entailed.


The Trust put me in contact with the publishing company that now owns the rights to the lyrics, and that led me to their Permissions department. I had to email a copy of the book as well as separate PDFs of the pages containing the quoted lyrics. The initial price I was given was $255, which was too steep for me.


I did some more digging (or pestering of the Permissions department) and eventually found out the price was calculated based on an estimated 10,000 print run. Many businesses have not caught up with the ebook trend—I won’t have a ‘print run’, and while I’d love to sell 10,000 copies, I wouldn’t mind starting off with a more obtainable goal. I emailed back and requested a 2,000 copy print run, and voila! the price dropped to an affordable $55. I mailed my check and received a ‘lyrics used by permission’ copyright blurb to stick in the front of my novel.


Different publishers/companies will obviously have their own pricing structure in place—my friend recommended this article about author Blake Morrison, who wound up paying around $7,000 for his song lyrics usage. And I’ve already been warned off quoting Dr. Seuss, whose estate evidently does go after people for copyright infringement.


From my experience, I’d give the following advice to authors:


* Think carefully about any lyrics/books/short stories/plays/movies you quote from in your story. You never know when you might get the urge to publish or even make an ebook to release for free on Smashwords. Better to be safe than sorry, and it’s usually easier to reimagine a scene before writing than it is to change one that’s already comfortably sitting in your story.


* If you are planning on self-publishing, you should be extra vigilant about copyrighted material, as you won’t have a publishing company to take any of the blame should you be sued. Also, some newer epublishing companies might not do thorough checks for copyrighted material, so as an author, it’s always best to be aware.


* If you decide to quote copyrighted material or already have it in your story, do your research. It doesn’t hurt to question the companies that hold the rights or to try to negotiate with them. Perhaps they will one day catch up with the times and start taking a percentage of ebook sales instead of asking for a lump fee up front, but for now you can always ask for their pricing structure and do what you can to get to a mutually agreeable fee. This might involve lowering your estimated print run and then reapplying for permission should you exceed that number of sales, or quoting fewer lines.


Though it may not make a whole lot of sense—especially in the case of song lyrics, where quoting almost seems like free advertising—this is the way the world currently works. Even when you attribute quotes to their rightful owners, you might have to pay for the right to use them in your story.


So don’t forget to keep it legal, and happy writing everyone!

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  • Site Administrator

I've had this question posed to be several times before in relation to posting in GA Stories, and I've always thought just disclaiming your lack of owernship in the story/chapter notes to them was good enough. Since I never quote books or lyrics, I've not run across this issue myself. Thanks for the clarification, Kingdom!

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Excellent, straight-forward explanation of how easy it is to get burned by copyright infringement. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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  • Site Administrator

Definitely a article to be considered to be pinned and used as a reference tool moving forward.


Thanks for sharing your knowledge and what you learned in researching this for everyone!

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I agree that this should be pinned. So many authors are turning to publishing, especially since it is now easier to get gay fiction published now than at any other time.


Another great tip from another great author.

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  • Site Administrator

I've copied this, and pinned it, in a new topic in the Writer's Corner on the main forum page.

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KBTS: "Though it may not make a whole lot of sense—especially in the case of song lyrics, where quoting almost seems like free advertising—this is the way the world currently works.


Exactly what I was thinking as I read this blog-article, but knows better now ;) Strange so-called mod society we're living in, eh?


Ta stax for this info, KBTS. :)

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Very nice advice. And I really appreciated you pointed out what's going on behind the deal a bit that we don't usually hear about, and how much we should expect to pay (and it's based on estimated print run). Thank you so much.

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I wrote the karaoke scene in my story around the same time that the SOPA/PIPA was being considered by Congress. I spent FOREVER researching and trying to find a way to include the scen without ever opening up the risk of copyright infringement. My solution was basically your suggestion: I referenced the songs by name, but didn't include the lyrics at all. When editing, I included all the lyrics and intertwined the text to make sure it all fit and then removed the lyrics before posting. I figured if people didn't know the songs, they could look them up.


If you look at the copyright page in books (Stephen King's Dark Tower series jumps to mind first), you'll notice that songs that get referenced in the book are referenced as 'used with permission', even when only one line is ever quoted.

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