Legal Questions

Are Online Images Fair Game to Use On Your Blog?

Q: Recently someone informed me that I violated copyright [by posting] one of his cartoons on my blog. I apologized and removed the image. Now I’m worried about other images I’ve used. My blog is simply to connect with other writers and I don’t make any money from it. What are...

Can I Resell an Article That's Already Been Published?

Q: When submitting an already published article—which carried one-time rights—what information do I owe the new editor?—Jack C. A: You need to tell the new editor the name of the publication and the issue date in which your article first appeared. Also, make it clear that you sold them only first...

How do you Represent the Deceased in Fiction?

Q: In a work of fiction, what restrictions exist on using the names of the dead, e.g., JFK, J. Edgar Hoover, etc.?  —Thomas W. A: When writing fiction, it’s generally OK to use the names of deceased people in your work and even create events that didn’t actually happen (Forrest Gump...

Are Government Docs in the Public Domain?

Q: Am I allowed to use text from a government document in my manuscript? —Amy V. A: The short answer is yes. Nearly all documents published by the government are part of the public domain and, therefore, free to use in your work. So if you want to use statistics from...

Libel vs. Slander

Q: What is the difference between libel and slander?—Mark E. A: Libel is the printing of false information that’s stated as if it were fact and brings harm to someone (or some group). Slander is spoken. Think of it this way: If my mom were to go on television and tell...

UPDATED: Can You Write the Sequel to Someone Else's Book?

NOTE TO READERS: AFTER WRITING THIS Q&Q I READ A COPYRIGHT LAW THAT DIDN’T JIVE WITH MY ANSWER, SO I CONTACTED AN ATTORNEY TO SET THINGS STRAIGHT. GLAD I DID, BECAUSE I WAS OFF. AFTER SOME DIGGING WE FOUND THAT THE GREAT GATSBY WILL ENTER THE PUBLIC DOMAIN IN 2020, NOT...

What is a Kill Fee?

Q: I got a contract for a magazine story that I’m writing, and it makes reference to a “kill fee.” What is a kill fee and why would a publisher and/or writer use one?—Frank A: A kill fee what you get if your editor decides not to buy your story after...

How Do You Regain Copyrights to Pieces You've Sold?

Q: About 20 years ago, I sold a short story to a magazine. One line in my contract stated the payment was for “full rights” and another said, “On acceptance of this payment, the author transfers the copyright interest to … .” Does this mean I can’t sell the story ever...

Where Can Authors Find Contract Forms?

Q: My co-author and I have been asked to provide a collaboration agreement to our agent.‑ Where can‑we find a template for creating this document?—Michele A: Templates for author contracts can be found in Tad Crawford’s Business and Legal Forms for Authors and Self-Publishers (Allworth Press). It’s a great resource for...

How Do I Copyright My Manuscript?

Q: I recently finished a novel and want to know what I can do to have it copyrighted. Is there a special process? –Sylvia R. A: Whenever you put something in a tangible format—written on paper, typed on computer, chiseled on stone tablets—it’s copyrighted and protected under U.S. copyright law. No...

Tax Time: Is Your Writing Career a Business?

Q: I made some money last year through my writing. As tax time rolls around, I’m wondering: How much money do I have to earn before I have to declare myself as a business? –Alice H. A: There is no set dollar amount that mandates you to declare your writing income...

Are E-Mails Copyrighted?

Q: I’m working on a book that includes several passages from e-mail messages I’ve received—stories, poems, quotes, etc. What obligations do I have when it comes to using the e-mails? Also, is it OK to get anecdotes (relevant experiences for nonfiction article topics) from people online through chat rooms and bulletin...

Can You Use Someone Else's Character in Your Book?

Q: Can I use a minor yet intriguing character from a famous work as the protagonist of my novel? I know it’s been done with novels like Wide Sargasso Sea, using Mrs. Rochester from Jane Eyre, but would a secondary character from a novel published before 1950 (yet still in print)...

What's Considered Fair Use and What Isn't?

Q: Is it necessary to ask permission to reprint an article if the reprint is used in a strictly academic setting?—Anonymous A: Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 107 of the U.S. code states that “the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies … for purposes...

What Are First Serial Rights (or FNASR)?

Q: When working out a contract with a magazine, what are first serial rights?—Anonymous A: When you sell first serial rights to a newspaper, magazine or periodical for a piece of work you’ve written, that media outlet has the right to be the first place to publish the article/story/ poem. After...

Can You Copyright a Pseudonym?

Q: Do I need to get a copyright for a pseudonym, or will a copyright for the book under my chosen pen name be sufficient?—Al de Araujo A: The name H.G. Wells isn’t copyrighted. Neither is Michael Crichton. Why? Under U.S. law you can’t copyright a name, real or fictitious. Copyrights...

Can I Use Song Lyrics in my Manuscript?

Q: What are the legal ramifications of reproducing song lyrics in a manuscript? If permission from each copyright holder is necessary, what’s the best way to secure these permissions? Also, can I use a song title as the title of my book?—June Youngblood A: Song lyrics are copyrighted, which means you...

Why Do Authors Use Pseudonyms?

Q: Why do authors use pseudonyms?—Anonymous A: Authors write under pseudonyms, or pen names, for a variety of reasons. Established authors will do it to cross genres and keep from aggravating their fan bases. Wouldn’t you be a bit ticked off if you bought Stephen King’s next book expecting blood, guts...

What is a Literary Executor?

Q: I was recently approached by one of my relatives (my father’s cousin), who asked if I would be her literary executor. I don’t really know what this means and thought you might be able to shed some light on the subject. Do you know what this might entail?—Anonymous A: Often...

Are You Using Trademarked Words in Your Writing?

Q: An editor once pointed out that I was using brand names instead of the generic equivalent. How am I to know which words have been trademarked and which aren’t?—Anonymous A: When your character cuts his hand, does he cover it with an adhesive bandage or a Band-Aid? Does his mother...

Should I Get a Lawyer Before Signing with an Agent?

Q: Once an agent wants to take me on as a client and sends me a contract, do I need to have the contract looked at by a contract lawyer before I sign?—Allen Reiling A: Yes, it would probably be wise to have a lawyer who knows a thing or two...