Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Copyright & Plagiarism

by Annette Lyon

Reader question from Terry:

Can you, or do you need to copyright short stories to put on a blog?


A disclaimer: The information here is based on my industry experience, but I’m not a lawyer. For legal advice, be sure to consult an attorney familiar with the publishing industry.

The short answer is no, you don’t need to copyright short stories on your blog.

The somewhat longer answer (which will also diverge into another area):

Once you write a story and it’s in any tangible form (saved onto your computer, scribbled in a notebook, typed out, on your blog, written in crayon on a napkin), it’s already under copyright protection by law. There is no need to register your work to have that protection.

When you get a book published, the publisher takes care of actually registering the copyright, which makes it nice and official so everyone is aware of your copyright. You get the © and a date by the mark so everyone knows how long it’s been under protection (generally the year the book was actually published, not when you wrote it, even though, yeah, it was already protected then).

Since publishers and agents know the generalities of copyright law, they aren’t going to try to steal your work. That would take a lot of effort, frankly, and they’d rather just be ethical, sell your stuff, and get both of you some money.

As I’ve mentioned before, putting that little copyright sign next to your manuscript’s title smacks of amateurism and paranoia. It doesn’t hurt, however, to put a copyright notice on your website or blog as a gentle reminder to readers that your work is under protection, just a small, "Content Copyright 2008." In this electronic age, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone (not editors and agents, but casual readers) to cut and paste and republish without permission or attribution.

If you’re genuinely concerned about someone stealing your work, you can do one of two things to prove your work existed when you say it did.

Register your work with the U.S. copyright office. Not hard to do, but it does require paperwork and a fee.


Mail yourself the manuscript. Then don’t open the package. That way, if Joe Schmoe comes along three years later and steals your work, you have physical proof on your postmark as to when your version existed—and that yours pre-dates Joe’s by a margin.

And here’s where the topic expands:

If Joe writes something that rings a bell—it has a similar concept, maybe—that may or may not be a violation of your copyright. His version would have to have a lot of similarities. You cannot copyright an idea, just the expression of one.

He might be plagiarizing your work. Or not. It would be depend if Joe uses your actual words, regardless of whether the story is the same. An author can be guilty of plagiarism if you’re lifting or just slightly altering someone else’s words. Paraphrasing without attribution is often considered plagiarism too.

While violating copyright and plagiarism are both unethical, they are not necessarily the same thing.

Say, for example, that a writer silently ripped off Jane Austen. She wouldn’t be guilty of violating copyright. No court around would find an author guilty of that, because Austen has been dead for so long that her work is in the public domain. (This is why you can find a dozen different houses publishing her books—they can do it without paying anyone royalties.)

However, if the author were to try passing off the copied Austen sections as her own, that would be plagiarism. Sometimes the two overlap, but sometimes they don’t.

When working on my last book, I was sure to tread carefully. The story is a retelling of a Shakespeare play, and some scenes are—deliberately—similar to the Bard’s.

During the drafting phase, I had a writer tell me that I could use anything from the actual play. Lift whatever I wanted, he said. Shakespeare is very much in the public domain, so he’s centuries past being protected by copyright.

The whole idea of trying to pass Shakespeare’s lines as my own didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t put my finger on why until later: that plagiarism and copyright don’t always fall under the same umbrella. Sure, I could lift some lines and be free of copyright issues. But I’d still be plagiarizing.

As I wrote the book, I made sure not to directly quote Shakespeare, but because some scenes do mirror the originals, I made sure to make it very clear to everyone that my book was an adaptation of good old Will’s work. That way I’m not trying to take credit for someone else’s words and ideas. The similarities would be seen as what they really are (an homage to Shakespeare) and not as an effort to pass off his ideas as mine.

I made it crystal clear everywhere: My publisher knew. I posted the “adaptation” information on my website and (repeatedly) mentioned it on my blog. I advertised the book that way in press releases (“Shakespeare Meets 1860s Salt Lake City”). It's even mentioned in the acknowledgments so readers would know going in.

Unfortunately, some writers do try to pass of other people’s work as their own, as romance author Cassie Edwards recently learned the hard way. And no, inserting speaker tags and otherwise changing up someone else’s words just a little doesn’t keep it from being plagiarism.

Since I’m a historical novelist, Edward’s situation provided a good reminder for me. Not only should I track my sources to protect myself, but I need to also be sure to use them the right way—as just that: sources of information, not a place to fall back on when explaining something. It needs to be my words, my voice, my expression. Not theirs.

That applies to all writers, regardless of whether you’d technically be violating copyright, because plagiarism is just as serious, and if you want your readers’ or your publisher’s trust, you have to make sure what you’re writing are your words. And if you’re using someone else’s words, say so up front, giving credit where credit is due.


Jennie said...

Annette, this is one of the best lay explanations I've read of copyright and plagiarism. Good job. There's one question in this area I've never found a satisfactory answer for. Is it plagiarism when the words you borrow are your own from an earlier work? Is it copyright infringement when an author borrows from a piece written by himself but published by a different publisher than the one his current piece is intended for? I always play it safe when I post my Meridian reviews on my own web page--I have permission and I include Meridian's copyright line. I once wrote an article for the Salt Lake Tribune, then several years later had an opportunity to resell the article, so I called the Trib and spoke to the editor who told me they didn't care as long as I didn't sell it to a competing publisher in their marketing area. I had a similar experience with a magazine article. I think the important point to keep in mind is that if there's any question, get permission ands be open about it.

Annette Lyon said...

Interesting question, Jennie. Since a lot of freelance writers often recycle their own articles and expland others, I don't think it would be considered plagiariasm to use your own words again (they are your own words, after all).

The only thorny issue (and I'm not an expert here, I'm assuming), is what you referred to: whether the original publisher owns the copyright or whether you can republish the piece elsewhere.

Getting permission is always a good idea regardless.

Heather B. Moore said...

When I've published an article, I've asked when my rights will be reverted. Usually it's right after it shows up in print with the first publisher.