Pros: All the information you could need in one place
Cons: Legal information can go out of date quickly
Rating: 4 out of 5
First published 10/12/2000
Previously published on Epinions.com
Many writers love to write so much that the money we make from our work is secondary. We want it – oftentimes we need it to pay our bills – but we don’t want to have to worry about it.
The legal side of writing is also often like this. We don’t want to have to learn about copyright, contracts, work made for hire, Schedule C of the US tax forms, the Freedom of Information Act, syndication, vanity presses, grants for writers, and copyright registration. But if we don’t pay attention to these things, we can easily get screwed over. There have been a lot of people lately who’ve tried to defraud writers (or at least play on their naivete and desire to have their work seen), and we need to know what to do to take care of ourselves. We also need to know what rights we’ve signed away to our pieces, so we’re aware of what rights we have left to sell. We need to know the tax laws so the IRS doesn’t knock down our door some day, and so that we get the deductions we deserve.
This is where “The Writer’s Legal Guide” comes in.
The original version of this book was written quite a while ago but it has been revised several times since then; make sure you get the most recent version possible as laws change over time.
Chapter two covers “Copyright: Gaining and Keeping Protection.” It includes such overviews as “The Value of Copyright,” in which a rather interesting example involving Salinger himself is used to show us that copyright is extremely valuable, even for pieces of work that you don’t like and never intend to publish. The book goes on to talk about what sorts of material are copyrightable, including the sticky idea of copyrighting a character as well as a work. It talks about who can benefit from copyright, the term that a copyright lasts, how to handle transfers and licenses, contests, and issues of the actual copyright notice itself.
The book then goes on to talk about the copyright registration process (Chapter 3, “Copyright: Registration and Deposit”). You’ll find out about the advantages of registration, and the possibilities for group registration, as well as the procedure for registering something.
Chapter 4, “Copyright: Works for Hire and Joint Works,” covers the concept of work for hire. This is a particularly valuable chapter to read. Some companies try to abuse the work for hire contract (which gives them complete ownership of a contracted writer’s work) to take rights to works that the work for hire laws are not meant to cover. As a result, the work for hire laws have gotten such a bad rap with writers that many writers believe that any work for hire contract is an attempt to defraud them, when in actuality there are specific, appropriate instances that the law is meant to cover. Understanding this particular subject could save you a lot of grief later.
Chapter 5, “Infringement, Fair Use, and Permissions,” talks about what you and other people can do with your work despite the whole copyright issue. It covers the issue of damages for infringement and who is liable for those damages, archival copying, and the sticky issue of parody in advertising.
Chapter 6, “Copyright: Past and Present,” discusses a brief history of copyright so you’ll have some understanding of the issues and why the laws have ended up the way they have. It discusses intellectual property rights, international copy protection laws, copy protections in the US for foreign writers (most of the material in this book, obviously, is meant for US writers), and, perhaps most of interest to many of today’s writers, the protection of electronic rights.
Chapter 7, “Other Rights of the Writer,” offers a brief foray into such issues as the right to privacy, the right to publicity, unfair competition, and protection against defamation.
Limits and Freedoms
Chapter 8, “Limits of Expression,” goes into the limits that exist on what writers may publish, including defamation, invasion of privacy, and obscenity. It also touches on the issue of censorship, particularly in schools.
Chapter 9 covers the Freedom of Information Act – how to request information under this act, exceptions to the act, and obtaining assistance with making FIA requests.
This part of the book starts out with a 12-page piece to introduce you to your contract; every writer should read this before signing his first contract. This will inform you of what constitutes offer and acceptance. It talks about competency requirements. It discusses the difference between written and oral contracts, and how to handle both.
“The Writer’s Legal Guide” also goes into remedies for a breach of contract in chapter 10, as well as statutes of limitation. Breach of contract is not uncommon in the writing industry. It seems that employers who stand never to meet their contract employees may feel little responsibility to them. While many writing contractors are good, decent people, the writer must always be aware of the possibilities of non-payment. This book will help you to be ready for this eventuality.
Chapter 11 handles the negotiation of book contracts, from all of the different types of rights (subsidiary, electronic and multimedia), to the delivery of a “satisfactory” manuscript, to royalties, advances, and payments, the old copyright issue again, arbitration, angencies, collaborators, and advertising and promotion.
Chapter 12 handles the issues brought up by magazine and syndication publication. Chapter 13 goes into dramatic productions (theater, film, and television). Chapter 14 goes into electronic rights and “new media,” including the world wide web, electronic publishers, and the Author’s Registry.
Chapter 16 handles collaboration agreements, including dispute resolution.
Chapter 15 goes into agents and contracts with agents, including such thorny issues as choosing an agent. This is another touchy issue, as fake “agents” have sprung up in a number of places lately, sending writers to editors-for-hire who are really family members and never actually sending their work to publishers. (Even when they do send work to publishers, they usually do more harm than good.)
Also in the same vein, Chapter 17 covers “book packagers,” another area in which scams tend to be rife. Chapter 18 covers vanity presses and self-publication, which, while not quite as scam-filled an area, is still something about which an author should know all the facts before going into it.
“The Writer’s Legal Guide” is very handy in tax areas. It talks about good record-keeping, including a sample ledger that I used as the basis for my own tax records. It goes over different accounting methods the writer can use, types of income (including grants and prizes), and what may qualify as a professional expense. It details deductions related to work area, writing supplies, professional equipment, travel, fees, and so on. (Such deductions can be tricky to get right, so a good road map is essential if you don’t want problems with the IRS.)
It deals with Schedule C of the US tax forms, and goes beyond that to talk about self-employment tax and estimated tax payments, as well as retirement plans, child care, American writers living abroad, foreign writers living in the US, and even gifts! It then goes into the sticky issue of whether your writing is a business or a hobby, and even how to handle your estate.
“The Writer’s Legal Guide” handles issues easily, clearly, and simply, with examples and case studies. With the excellent table of contents and index you can even wait to look things up until you need them, if you can’t stomach the thought of reading it cover to cover.