Ask the Lawyer: Writing Together; Writing Sub Rosa

A friend and I are co-authoring a novel. What needs to be considered in any legal agreements?

—Heather Gent

Writers who share the work of writing a book—researching, writing, revising—are joint authors and, under copyright law, the work is a joint work. You will share ownership of copyright, authorship credit, royalties and the right to sell the work. While no contract is required to create joint authorship, if you wish to remain friends with this person, it is wise to create an agreement before getting too involved in the project. Here are some of the issues to address:

Allocation of responsibility. The agreement should spell out the work of each collaborator. Is one person plotting the story line and the other writing dialogue? Are you alternating writing chapters? Is one more creatively inclined and the other a researcher?

Compensation. Revenue may be divided as you choose. If you choose an unequal split, it must be put into writing and signed by all co-authors.

Expenses. Expenses are usually shared in the same percentage as advances and royalties. However, you may want to include a clause that obliges each collaborator to get the other’s written permission before incurring a major expense.

Authorship credit. Whose name goes first if you each do roughly half the work? If one partner is doing more, will her name be in larger type or above the other’s name?

Termination. If things don’t work out, who keeps the writing that’s already been done? And what if “the big termination” were to happen—death of a co-author? Copyright law governs much of what happens after a project is completed, but what would happen before completion?

Control. You may assume that you will jointly decide all creative, legal and business issues that arise, but what if you are deadlocked? Some mechanism for decision-making should be included, such as mediation or arbitration.

I’d like to write books and articles under a pen name, and keep my identity absolutely secret. How can I guarantee my privacy? Can I be paid under my pseudonym?

—Joanna Benz

Authors choose to use pseudonyms, or pen names, for a variety of reasons. For many, it is a way to separate their writing life from their 9 to 5 jobs. Others use names of a different gender if they think their readers will be more receptive that way. Established writers may write under a different name if they’re trying out a new genre. Then, there are those who are writing about controversial matters and don’t want the notoriety.

Almost all states’ laws permit a person to use another name, so long as it is not for fraudulent purposes. Use of a pen name is permitted on the copyright registration, but you will need to include an address. You may want to establish an alternate mailing address, such as a post office box.

Despite what pen name is used, publishers must report income to the Internal Revenue Service with the applicable real name and social security number. You could consider setting up a separate corporation in the pseudonym to ensure all taxes and income are processed through that corporation.

Think carefully before using a pen name exclusively. You will not be able to do publicity for your book, which is a huge detriment. Also, have a copy of the work notarized with both names on it. Someday, you or your heirs may need to prove authorship.

This article appeared in the August 2002 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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