Ep. 04: Book Copyright FAQs with Helen Sedwick

Understanding copyright can sound intimidating, but it’s necessary if you want to publish a book. Join us as we lay out the foundations of book copyright in a simple, easy-to-understand way.

Is my first draft protected by copyright? 

How long does copyright last? 

Can I use song lyrics in my book? 

These are just a few book copyright questions that legal expert Helen Sedwick answers in this informative episode of Go Publish Yourself. With copyright, you have the right to decide how your book is published, how it’s derived into a different work, what translations are made, and moreLearn how to protect your writing and publish today with IngramSpark!


Robin Cutler [00:00:08] Hi everyone, welcome to Go Publish Yourself, an IngramSpark podcast. I'm Robin Cutler, Director of IngramSpark.

Justine Bylo [00:00:16] I'm Justine Bylo, the Author Acquisitions Manager for IngramSpark. Hi, Robin!

Robin Cutler [00:00:20] Hey, Justine. Today is a topic that I know that you've heard a lot from various authors, of some confusion concerning copyright.

Justine Bylo [00:00:32] Yes, I get this question out on the road all the time. People don't know what copyright is, what to do about it, this is just a conundrum for a lot of people. We are very excited to talk about this topic today and have an expert to talk to us about it!

Robin Cutler [00:00:53] Yes, quite the expert. Today, we're joined by Helen Sedwick, author and University of Chicago Law School graduate, she's represented small businesses and entrepreneurs for 30 years. Her self-published historical novel, Coyote Winds, which I'm really excited to hear more about, has earned five star reviews from Foreword Reviews and is an indieBRAG Medallion honoree. Publishers Weekly lists her Self-Publisher's Legal Handbook as one of the top five resource books for independent authors. Helen's blog coaches writers on everything from saving on taxes to avoiding scams. Welcome, Helen.

Helen Sedwick [00:01:33] Glad to be here.

Robin Cutler [00:01:35] We were just talking, and I just want to just throw a big shout-out to Helen. She's recently had her home destroyed by the fires in California. We were just talking about some of her trials and tribulations related to that. Helen, I'm just so glad that you're here, that you've gone through just such a horrible tragedy, and our hearts go out to you, and I'm sure a lot of your neighbors in that area.

Helen Sedwick [00:02:08] Thank you, we're putting one foot in front of the other and we will get through this.

Robin Cutler [00:02:15] I'm sure you will, and tell me, just really give us a little, a little preview of your Coyote Winds, I love that name, for one thing, as a title of a book. Can you tell us a little bit about what that's about?

Helen Sedwick [00:02:31] Yes, when my father passed away, he had left behind a memoir. He grew up on the prairie during the Dust Bowl, and as opposed to a story about hardship, it really was a story about freedom—a really unfenced boyhood. I was inspired to write a story that really contrasted the difference between the boyhood of just two generations ago, and boyhoods today, where people are so unsupervised, whereas they have the overly supervised in today's environment.

Justine Bylo [00:03:04] Yes, helicopter parents.

Helen Sedwick [00:03:06] Yes, and as I learned more about the Dust Bowl, it was such a classic American story of American confidence or overconfidence. The arrogant confidence that got us to the moon also got us into Iraq and other problems, and was really the story, as many writers say, became my life, just capturing the story, so in many ways it contrasts the boyhood, it talks about the American dream and how that's changed over time, and that is its essence, it's also a boy and his dog story, but in this case, the dog is a coyote.

Robin Cutler [00:03:47] Oh!

Justine Bylo [00:03:47] That's so fun!

Helen Sedwick [00:03:49] I self-published that in 2013, and I also practiced law for many years, and when I self-published that is when I came up with the idea that I really needed to work on a handbook to help writers, because like you, I would get so many questions from writers who felt intimidated and confused by copyright and defamation and the other legal issues and the basic business setup of self-publishing. I wrote Self-Publisher's Legal Handbook, which is now in its second edition.

Justine Bylo [00:04:24] Oh, that's great.

Helen Sedwick [00:04:24] Had a lot of feedback, I tried to make it as user-friendly as possible to avoid too much legalese and really make it useful to writers.

Justine Bylo [00:04:36] Well, when I was in college, one of my professors always used to say to us, you may be writers, but you know, you should protect yourselves. That has always stuck with me and I try to impart that to authors whenever I'm out on the road. I'm so happy that you've created this guide for people because not all of us can be lawyers, trust me. I know it would be really horrible if I was. However, when you set out to write this, what are your first tips for authors in protecting their work, when they're actually done with their book?

Helen Sedwick [00:05:22] Interesting, authors are afraid that if they send their manuscript out to agents and publishers or if they post excerpts online, the work will get stolen by strangers or by agents. That's not really the big risk. That doesn't happen very often. The way authors get in trouble is they basically sign their rights away. If they get a publishing contract or they're offered a hybrid publishing contract, they are so thrilled and flattered that someone is interested in their work that they end up basically getting robbed by contract. I talk about basic copyright issues, but I also break down, like when you are presented with a contract, what is it, how do you look at it? How do you even start looking at it? What does the different terminology mean? Because the heartbreak comes when you sign on with the wrong publisher, and then, you've lost the rights to continue to work with that book and your book never gets out there to the public the way it should. The book piraters, they go after the bestsellers. They go after the easy money. It's the people who are going to offer to help you publish your book, and charge you $10,000 for doing it, those are the real dangers.

Robin Cutler [00:06:59] Helen, and Justine and I both are writers and so my first draft that I'm painfully trying to finish up, is that protected by copyright?

Helen Sedwick [00:07:13] Yes, copyright attaches as soon as you put down your words, your expression, on a piece of paper or on a computer hard drive. As soon as it's in tangible form, it is protected by copyright. That confuses people because the law used to be that you had to register your copyright and you had to mark it with a "C" circle. Nowadays, it's automatic. Copyright, what that means is, you have the right to decide how it's published, how it's maybe derived into different works such as a film or a television show. You get the right to decide what translations are made, it's a whole bundle of rights.

Robin Cutler [00:08:02] And how long does copyright last?

Helen Sedwick [00:08:06] It lasts for your whole lifetime plus 70 years. Your great-grandchildren could be getting royalties on your work.

Robin Cutler [00:08:16] Is that just in the US, or is it different internationally?

Helen Sedwick [00:08:21] In some countries, it's a lifetime plus 50 years, but it's still quite a long time. Now, there's a thing people say, they copyrighted their work. That is a misnomer for registering your copyright. Registering your copyright with the US Copyright Office is a separate step. It's a good idea, because it does give the writer additional protections, but it's not mandatory. The writer owns their copyright even if they never register it, but let's take a moment, talk about registration. It's easy and it's cheap, and it makes absolute sense for a writer to register their work either as a published work or even an unpublished work. You can do it online, it costs $35, and what it does, it creates this record of what your work looked like on that date, so that if you ever have to enforce your rights, you have this record that the law recognizes as being very powerful, that this is your work.

Justine Bylo [00:09:35] God forbid someone actually stole your work, what would happen? What would an author do in that case?

Helen Sedwick [00:09:50] What you would do, if it's online, if let's say someone is scraping your blog posts—they're taking them and they're slapping them on their website and they're putting their name on it, and that could be whether it's your writing, your images, your recordings—you can send what's called a takedown notice. It's a technical term, but if anyone searches that, they'll be able to find websites that will help you with it. If they happen to be posting on Facebook and other social media sites, usually, you'll be able to report this infringement right from Facebook, you go to their help menu or you'll see something on Amazon that says copyright notices or copyright issues, you can click on that. If somebody (and this happens) has gone onto Amazon, downloaded your ebook, and is now reprinting your book—your entire book with your name—you can contact Amazon and probably, I bet you IngramSpark has a similar system, for alerting them, and a lot of these publishers are actually have apps that will scan through books to see whether this might be material that matches already published material. If it gets more complicated and more costly than that, then you probably need to talk to an attorney, who will help you enforce your rights.

Robin Cutler [00:11:29] We do, Helen, have, if we get contacted, especially by an author's attorney, we do just like Amazon have a mechanism to take works down, but as you said at the very beginning, it's pretty rare that this happens and not as much as you would think. One of the things I'm curious about, and something that I've seen here very recently, is summaries of published works.

Justine Bylo [00:12:03] Yeah, this is a new thing, pop up.

Robin Cutler [00:12:05] I saw even Michelle Obama's biography with summaries for sale on Amazon, of her book, is that something that just anybody can do?

Helen Sedwick [00:12:18] No, as you will see this on various website, that people will create a book that looks a lot like Michelle Obama's book, or they'll call it 47 Shades of Gray, or something like that, and people download it because they're not looking very carefully, usually it's a lot cheaper, like Michelle Obama's book might be $15.99, and then this other book that looks like it's the same book is $2.99. What you get is like a 300-word summary that's not even written by somebody who speaks English as a first language, about her book, and what they're trying to do is get a lot of $2.99 downloads. You can report those to IngramSpark, to Barnes and Noble, to Amazon, and those will get taken down. Unfortunately, some of this is just, this is modern life now with the internet, there are all kinds of people looking to make a buck, easily and cheaply, so the author needs to watch out for these, and as a buyer, we all have to watch out that we're not falling for these tricks.

Robin Cutler [00:13:33] What about fair use? Because I come out of the academic world where, oftentimes a professor or whoever the author is will be doing research, will pull from other works, and use that to illustrate a point, in their work. What are the rules around fair use of other published work?

Helen Sedwick [00:13:59] Well, what I was talking earlier about, how owning a copyright gave you the control over the publication and the use of the work, fair rights is the big exception. If you've written a work, somebody can use portions of your work for purposes of criticism, discussion, commentary, parody, illustration; they might take quotes from you, or you might take quotes from others, and use it as part of a larger expressive work. It's an area where the law looks at various factors, such as how much of the work was used, whether it has a financial impact upon the original creators. Unfortunately, it's very messy legally. If you are using someone else's work, just be very conscious that you are using it not on its own, you're not taking somebody's quote and putting it on a t-shirt. You're taking someone's quote and using it as a small portion of an original expressive work you're creating, or you're criticizing on it, or you're doing something, but you have to be adding a lot of new content, and if somebody borrows some of your creation, before you feel as if you've been stolen from or violated—take a step back, look at how they're using it. The First Amendment, and just the purpose, the purpose is to promote discussion. The First Amendment allows people to use portions of your work to expand upon just the discussion of life and meaning of life in general. I realize this, people like to have definitive lines, when it comes to fair use, I can't give definitive lines, except don't put someone else's quote on a t-shirt or a mug and think you'll get away with it.

Robin Cutler [00:16:07] Always ask permission. It's the ethical thing to do, and it will solve problems for you down the road if you take that extra step.

Helen Sedwick [00:16:20] It is, and where people really trip up is on lyrics. Authors love to use lyrics, especially if they open up their chapters with lyrics, because they set the scene, and they may put you in a time, in a place, and tell you a lot about a character. Lyrics are particularly hazardous to borrow for that purpose, because they're owned by the record companies or publishing companies, music publishing companies who are aggressive, so if you are using lyrics, I have actually on my website a download called How To Use Memorable Lyrics Without Paying a Fortune or a Lawyer, which will help people through the nitty-gritty of getting permission, or you may use the title and the name of the artist. Copyright does not cover titles, or authors' names, or factual information, so you could, to be safest, you would have your character listening to music and you would just mention the title or the artist.

Robin Cutler [00:17:28] That makes sense. Helen, you mentioned your website. How would someone find you online?

Helen Sedwick [00:17:36] It's helensedwick.com, H-E-L-E-N, S-E-D-W-I-C-K, dot com, and I talk about my books and I also have a blog that has a ton of information to help writers.

Robin Cutler [00:17:51] Well, I encourage you all to follow Helen online. She is absolutely, I believe, in the self-publishing space, the number one authority on, you know, most legal matters, that pertain to most self-publishers, so definitely check out her guide, and I'm actually going to order a copy of Coyote Winds because I really want to read that.

Justine Bylo [00:18:18] I'm going to order a copy of the legal guide, because I have learned so much in this podcast! I'm sitting here in awe.

Robin Cutler [00:18:26] Thank you so much, Helen. Again, our hearts go out for what you've gone through this past year with the fire and all of that, and we just so appreciate you taking the time out today to talk to us.

Helen Sedwick [00:18:40] Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

Robin Cutler [00:18:43] Thanks everyone for listening to Go Publish Yourself. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes. The more positive ratings and reviews we receive, the more authors and publishers like you will be able to discover our podcast, too. If you're ready to publish today, please visit the IngramSpark website, and for even more tips on publishing, check out our weekly blog and free online self-publishing courses available in the IngramSpark Academy. Talk to you soon!

Justine Bylo [00:19:13] Bye!


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