Tips, Writing

Write a Novel: Permissions and Copyright

Last week I mentioned two rules for writing:

Rule #1: what the publisher says goes.

Rule #2: most of us write a book without knowing who our publisher will be.

Here’s the next one:

Rule #3: when it comes to permissions and copyrights, there is a walloping big difference between what we, as writers, can do and what we should do.

Part of what we can do means what are we legally allowed to do? Can we use material created by another person? This may be as simple as using a brand name for a familiar product; setting our mystery in a real life business; quoting from written material, including songs and poems; using a clip from multi-media material; or using an image for a book cover.

Navigating the legal quagmire around copyrights is like seeing the universe with Dr. Who. It’s a four dimensional experience because both space (geography) and time are important factors. What’s legal in one place may be illegal in another. What was legal when we start writing a book may, several years later when we publish the book, be illegal.

The time to meet legal standards is after we’ve sold the book. We do not do ourselves a favor by relying on family, friends, or other writers for copyright advice. When we sell our book, what our publisher requires will be the final word. Assume, in the end, we will have to rewrite, track down permissions, or both. Won’t the publisher do those things for us? In many cases, no. Proving permission to use is devolving to the writer.

As artists we must work to express our inner imperatives and not just filling the form provided by the marketplace. Integrity comes from the root word integer, meaning whole, unfragmented by doubt or discomfort. A positive list [about our personal and professional values] goes a long way toward establishing a beachhead of integrity. ~Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

I fell in love with the phrase establishing a beachhead of integrity. A writing career means establishing a series of beachheads. It’s what each of us does when she makes the decision to turn pro. It’s what we do when we move to a new publisher, or establish ourselves in a new genre, or commit to a new way of publishing. It’s what we do when we decide how much of the real world, how much other people created we intend to use in our books.

My personal beachhead starts with if someone else wrote, drew, photographed, made, performed or in any other way had a hand in creating something, I have a responsibility to honor that creativity.

I believe all of these statements are false:

  • They got paid for it, so it’s out there to be used.
  • They won’t care if I use this.
  • If I include it in my work, it’s free publicity for them.
  • They probably won’t catch me.
  • It’s easier to apologize than to ask for permission.

10 take home tips for permissions and copyright

  1. Know what our beachhead of integrity is. Write it down. If we’re going to copy free-for-all, at least we need to be honest to ourselves. If we’re going to respect creativity, we need to know that about ourselves as well.
  2. Use the Style Sheet I wrote about last week to track all of the things we might be asked to provide a permission for in the future. This includes brand names, real places, businesses, events, quotes, song lyrics, in short, anything anyone else had a hand in creating.
  3. Check character names on the Internet to make sure we haven’t stumbled on the name of a well-known person.
  4. Write around whenever possible. Writing around means to convey information without using real life references.
    I stopped for a quick hamburger before my interview.
    A bubble-gum songs from my childhood was on the radio.
  5. When writing around, the most important thing is not the brand name. It’s our character’s emotional reaction to what’s happening.
    I stopped for a quick hamburger before my interview. Sad to say, I’d never outgrown comfort food.
    A bubble-gum song from my childhood was on the radio. I still hated it. I switched it off and faced facts. I was about to interview a woman who terrified me.
  6. As writers, we sometimes include friends’ or contest winners’ names for characters. Get that person’s written permission before doing this.
  7. Always make up a place, business, event, etc. if bad things happen there. It’s a good idea to make something up, even if only good things happen there.
  8. If we make up a place, business or event, check the Internet to make sure that company or event doesn’t really exist. This is especially important if we have inadvertently created a name that is very similar to a real one. For example having an event called Playthings-For-Preschoolers is probably too close to the charity event Toys-For-Tots.
  9. If the time comes when we have to obtain permission for song lyrics, contact a musical theatre company. They have to track down hundreds of music permissions and may know how to do this better than we do.
  10. Always assume a copyright exists. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it is copyright-free. Copyrights can be inherited by family members, foundations, and organizations A university owns the copyright to a particular edition of Shakespeare’s plays. If we used that edition as a reference, we’d need permission from the university. Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, owns the rights to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, even though Barrie died seventy-seven years ago. If we used a line from Peter Pan, we’d need permission from the hospital.

Hope to see you again on Thursday for Level Thinking, this week’s musing on the writing life.

Next Tuesday on Write a Novel: The Global View