When it comes to legal issues writers face, the challenges may differ according to the category each writer falls into. Academic writers, for example, may face completely different legal issues compared to novelists and poets. The one thing that is certain about all writers (apart from the fact that they like playing with words) is that they have, or will have to, deal with the law at some point in their careers.
Whether this interaction is good or bad, will largely depend on the information the writers will have when dealing with those legal issues. That list of legal issues includes:
- Violating the publishing contracts
- Employer and employee relations – who owns the copyright?
- Pictures and lyrics – are we allowed to use them?
- Plain language agreements
True to their craft, academic writers (whether lawyers, lecturers or even students) often have to do extensive research on the topics of their written works. This is followed by the use of referencing methods (such as in-text referencing or foot-notes) to show not only the source of their research, but the original authors as well. This is where some problems begin to arise.
Using the ideas or exact words of another writer without acknowledging them can result in plagiarism.
Plagiarism is a violation of other writers’ copyright and the rights or licenses that those writers probably gave to their publishers. This means that if, as an academic writer, you are not careful about plagiarism and its implications, you could find yourself in deep legal trouble.
Violating the publishing contract
Another problem, especially with less-established writers whose work is not widely available across different platforms (well-known bookshops, for example, or even online shops), is that they resort to selling copies of the book directly to their readers. This is exciting for a writer because it means money directly into their pocket, but the problem is that it cuts the publisher out of the picture. The publisher gets nothing because it does not know about the sale. If the publisher does find out and is not happy with this, they will want to take legal action to recover some or all of the profits that the writer made in secret. In suing the writer, they will rely on a clause in the publishing contract that says that the writer may buy or get free copies from the publisher, but is not allowed to resell those copies.
Employer and Employee relations – who does the copyright belong to?
There are thousands of writer or writing-related jobs on the internet, which include:
- Copywriter positions in magazines,
- Junior Editors in newspapers,
- Column Writers or Bloggers, and even
- Commissioned Short Story Writers
The immediate connection between these jobs is that the writer gets paid to write, to create content for the employer. The real problem arises, though, when the writer begins writing other works, during work hours or even in their personal time, whilst employed by the employer. Basically, imagine a journalist employed by Newspaper X, but who writes an article intended for other publications that are not part of Newspaper X. Does Newspaper X (because of being the journalist’s employer) own the copyright in that work?
Well, if the Copyright Act has anything to say in the matter (and it does!), then, the copyright might very well belong to Newspaper X.
Pictures and Lyrics – are writers allowed to use them?
A picture is worth a thousand words…
Pictures and songs are one of the most inspirational tools out there to get a writer’s creative juices flowing. But what if the writer now wants to use those very same pictures or songs in the piece they want to write? Does copyright law allow it? This is indeed an interesting question.
When it comes to songs, one of the things to consider is whether the piece you are writing is a fair (must not defame the artist, for example) critique of the song, published in a magazine perhaps, or whether you are writing a blog about the song and providing a link to an illegal download of the song.
With pictures, it is important to get the permission of the photographer or the person holding the copyright to the picture. This saves you the trouble of having to defend against a claim from that person that you used their pictures without permission. The important thing to remember is that you must not infringe the business interests of the copyright holder, including damaging the holder’s reputation or severely limiting their profit-making.
Plain language agreements…
Fact: a lot of writers sign publishing contracts that they do not even understand.
To prevent confusing writers with complicated legal terminology, publishers must use plain language agreements that their writers will most likely understand. This creates a win-win situation for both parties. It reduces the chances of the writer unknowingly breaching the agreement and claiming that they did not know what their obligations were because it was too complicated for them to understand. The publisher, on the other hand, will also have more legal ground to stand on when suing the writer for knowingly violating the agreement.
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