By: Olivia Clark, Georgia State University College of Law, and John Seay
Self-publishing your book or ebook via websites like Amazon, CreateSpace, or Lulu can provide much more immediate results than sending manuscript after manuscript to traditional publishers. However, when you self-publish you are sacrificing the legal counsel that is part of a traditional publisher’s business. Self-publishing offers you the freedom to have full control of your work, but keeping tabs on potential legal issues on your own can be daunting. Below are just a few of the more important legal issues that you should consider before becoming your own publisher.
Copyright your original work
Before you publish your book, consider registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Although your book is protected by copyright regardless of whether you register that copyright, registration is relatively cheap ($35 per registration) and provides you with some additional benefits, as we’ve discussed here. Among other benefits, registration signals to the world that you intend to enforce your copyright.
Protect your original work
If your work is used without your permission on, for example, a website, then you may consider sending a “notice and takedown” to that website. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act requires online service providers to offer contact information for receiving such takedown notices. When sending your own “notice and takedown,” always include relevant information, such as your identity as the copyright holder, the title of the work that is infringed upon, the infringed work’s location on the website, and your contact information. If that doesn’t work, or if the potential infringer is not a website subject to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, then consider sending a cease and desist letter. If you’re registered your copyright before the act of infringement, then you are entitled to statutory damages and attorney fees, which may significantly increase your leverage. We discussed cease and desist letters in great detail here and here.
Using previously copyrighted material
Generally, if you’re incorporating material from other copyrighted works into your own work, then you should proceed with extreme caution or consider consulting with an attorney. Don’t assume that just because you found something online, it is safe to use it as the cover for your book or in any other fashion. If you decide to proceed without seeking legal counsel, then try to use the copyrighted elements in a transformative manner, and only use as much of the copyright element as you need to illustrate your point. If you are hesitant, then check with the owner of the copyright in order to obtain the appropriate rights to use the work. If the copyright was registered, then you should be able to locate the copyright holder. Also, note that copyrights can expire, at which point they become public domain. Making matters more confusing, different rules apply depending on when the work was published. Here is a chart explaining copyrights lengths for registered works. Finally, if someone claims that your work infringers theirs, then consult with an attorney. You may have some legal defenses to such claims, such as “fair use,” which we discussed in detail here.
Know what rights, if any, you’re giving away
Make sure to thoroughly read whatever contract you’re asked to sign, if any. You want to make sure that you aren’t transferring ownership of your work in any way, and if your submission of the work is subject to some kind of license, then understand the scope of that license and how your work can and cannot be used. Pay particular attention to how royalties will be computer for sale of your book. Notice any deadlines and proofreading waivers and abide by them. If you have any questions, consult with an attorney.