JWAM reader request no. 15: Copyright fears

Michelle Madow Says:

A lot of my friends have been asking me to email them what I’ve written so far, and it’s started me thinking about copyright. I want to show my friends what I’m working on so I can get their input, but don’t want to hurt myself in the end by doing so. Also, if I ever get published, I don’t want to have to deal with copyright lawsuits! How do I go about obtaining copyright, and how does copyright work for an unpublished author??

Kt Says:

I’m finding that its incredibly difficult to write fiction that theoretically occurs in a “real” world, that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the timelines and reality of said world. Sometimes i feel like it would be so much easier just to create an entirely imaginary world even though realistically that is a lot harder to develop. I can think of several writers who have done well by anchoring a “fictional” town in a “real” place. I’m debating between if i need to do that or if i can just fictionalize real places to be what i need them to be. i don’t even know if there are legal issues with that, i remember being very confused reading pride & prejudice with all the ____shires etc to avoid naming actual places. What do you find to be the best way to deal with this when there really is a need to anchor the story to at least a specific area?

BIG FAT DISCLAIMER: I am a writer, not an intellectual property lawyer.

But my gut response is that neither of you has anything to worry about. I’ve been in the writing game a long time. As an amateur unpublished writer I showed my work to gazillions of people and as a published writer I’ve shown it (pre-publication) to even more and no one has ever stolen a single idea, or character, or setting of mine. Nor have I ever heard of it happening to any of the other many many many writers I know.

I’ve seen cases where one person was inspired by the story of another writer in their crit group to write a story in response. In which case they told the writer what they were doing and asked if it was okay. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing. Writers inspiring one another!

I’ve also seen unpublished writers posting published work and claiming it as their own fan fiction. This has happened to Scott’s Uglies and many other writers. Here’s the thing though, it had zero effect on Scott or his sales, because fans recognised it instantly and began harrassing the plagiarist to take it down, which they eventually did.

And just to repeat what I said in this post and many others: ideas cannot be stolen. They’re there for the taking. Plagiarism refers to the theft of words, not ideas. Did I mention that ideas can’t be stolen?

It depresses me that there’s so much worry about copyright nowadays. I’ve had kids as young as twelve ask me how to protect their writing from being stolen. Maybe I’m completely sheltered but I’ve never had anyone try to steal my work. Unless you count this kid who tried to copy my maths homework when I was in year seven and boy did that go horribly wrong for him. (I’m innumerate.)

Perhaps that’s part of the copyright concern? Cheating by copying other people’s homework?

But I think it’s more likely that it’s because there is so much misinformation about copyright. I keep coming across people who think that ideas and plots can be stolen. No, they can’t. Many people think that Eragon violates copyright because of its similarities to Star Wars and the Anne McCaffrey Dragon books and Lord of the Rings.1 No, it doesn’t. Paolini may have been influenced by those books—and, please, show me one published novel that is uninfluenced by previous novels—but his words are his own. You can accuse him of being unoriginal, but not of being a plagiarist. Ideas, plots, even character types, can’t be stolen.2

Let’s say a novel is published that’s a relatively original take on, for example, uni***ns, and then a couple of years later someone else writes a very similar book about uni***ns, and for some reason, even though it’s not as original or well-written as the book it was inspired by, the second book does much better than the first.

So not fair! Fans of the first book are really pissed with the author of the second. But unfairness doesn’t make it plagiarism. Words were not stolen, ideas were borrowed. There’s no copyright violation.

And what often happens is that the first book gets a lift in popularity on the back of the first one’s success because fans of it are desperate for more cool uni***n books. I call that win-win. (Of a sort.)

Not to mention that what’s imitation and what’s an original riff on an existing book is in the eye of the beholder. I know people who find Eragorn refreshingly original and are appalled that anyone could think otherwise. People read differently. Why, I know readers who do not acknowledge that Angela Carter is a genius. Insanity!

Michelle, you should send your work out to your friends. First of all, if they’re anything like me or my friends, most of them won’t get around to reading it. Secondly, the more people who see your work the safer you are from theft because all your friends will know that you wrote it and will call the thief out. But I have to emphasise that I haven’t seen this happen. The fear of someone stealing your work is WAY out of proportion to actual instances of that happening.

Feedback is crucial

When you send your work to other people or post it online, you get critical responses that not only helps that piece of work, but all your subsequent work. The benefit is real, immediate, and lasting. The chances of having your work stolen are, in contrast, vanishingly small and apply only to that one piece of work.

If someone is so uncreative and unoriginal that they have to steal someone else’s words eventually they’re going to get caught. (The intermanets has made it much easier to uncover plagiarism. Witness the Kaavya Viswanathan case.) Whereas you, who are creative and original, will continue to write wonderful stuff. The more you write the more evident that will be. The way of the plagiarist is unsustainable.

Scott puts it this way:

    You are the goose that lays the golden eggs, and you’re just getting started at the whole egg-laying thing. Don’t worry so much about what happens to every single egg at this point; worry about getting better at making eggs.

    As Cory Doctorow likes to say, the problem for the artist is not piracy, but obscurity. If you hide your work, you’re making yourself obscure.

    Art is a conversation. By keeping your work from other artists, you are cutting yourself off from that conversation. The costs of losing that feedback and those connections with other artists are about a million times greater than the risk of plagiarism.

Copyrighting your work

As I understand it (and remember I’m not a lawyer) copyright only applies to completed works. So it’s not something to worry about until you have a finished work. And even then I wouldn’t worry. I have never applied for copyright. It never occurred to me to do so. Once a publisher buys your novel they apply for the copyright and get your ISBN numbers too.

When you start submitting your work to agents and editors. DO NOT put a copyright sign on it. That makes you look like an amateur. No reputable agent or editor will ever steal your work. The internamanets allow you to thoroughly check out any agent before submitting. Writers Beware and sites like it are your friend.3

And now for Kt’s question about whether you should set your book in a real place or not:

My first novels—the Magic or Madness trilogy—were set in the real world. In parts of the Northern Territory, Sydney, New York City, San Miguel de Allende, Bangkok and Dallas to be precise. It never crossed my mind that could be a problem. The vast majority of novels published every year all around the world are set in the real world using real names of streets and places, as well as made-up ones. Some of the restaurants and cafes in the trilogy are real, some are not. I bent things to suit my needs. That’s one of they joys of novel writing—no footnotes. As far as I know there are no legal issues involved in setting your book in a real place. (But remember I’m not a lawyer.)

When it comes to institutions like universities and specific businesses I think the common practise is to be a bit cautious. Especially if you’re writing a book where some of your characters are thinly disguised real people and it’s pretty clear your novel is an expose of the dirty world of Princeton or Vogue magazine or Harvey Norman or whatever. But I believe simply renaming them takes care of that. Any intellectual property/copyright lawyer want to step in here?

I have no idea why Jane Austen and many of her contemporaries did the whole ____shires thing. Though I’ve always wondered. But I have too much on my plate to start googling around to find out. Any of my genius and well-read readers know?

My main message is that you don’t need to be overly concerned about copyright. Put those thoughts aside and get on with your writing. Focus on writing perfect sentences, coming up with cracker plots, and crafting unputdownable novels. Trust me, getting that right is much more of a worry than being sued over setting your story in a real place or one of your friend’s stealing your ideas, (which CAN’T be stolen, did I mention that?)

One last thing: I am all for copyright. Its existence means that I am able to make money from writing. My copyrighted work has sold in ten different territories, earning me extra money in each one. Copyright is a very good thing indeed.

NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.

  1. Disclaimer: I have not read any of Paolini’s books so I have no idea if that’s true or not. []
  2. Anyone who tries to start a flamewar pro or con Paolini gets deleted. []
  3. I have a bit more to say on how to check whether an agent is legit here. []


  1. Susannah on #

    I’m so enjoying your January writing series, Justine!

    As an editor who has to deal with copyright questions fairly regularly, I thought I might leap in with a useful link (for Australian readers, sorry USians). The Copyright Council of Australia has many useful info sheets at http://www.copyright.org.au.

    Most useful, perhaps, is to note that under Australian copyright law ‘Copyright protection is free and applies automatically when material is created. There is NO registration system for copyright in Australia.’

    That means that as soon as it leaves your head and is in some tangible form – hand-written on napkins, spoken into a tape recorder, written on your blog, copyright exists and you own it.

  2. hereandnow on #

    I second Susannah’s recommendation – the Copyright Council has excellent factsheets about Australian intellectual property.

    When it comes to institutions like universities and specific businesses I think the common practise is to be a bit cautious. Especially if you’re writing a book where some of your characters are thinly disguised real people and it’s pretty clear your novel is an expose of the dirty world of Princeton or Vogue magazine or Harvey Norman or whatever.

    I’m not an actual lawyer and I’m most familiar with the Australian situation, but yes, renaming/altering identifable people and corporations can be a good idea — particularly if the treatment of them is negative, because there might be a risk of defamation. (Defamation is tricky, because what is considered defamatory varies so widely between countries.)

    Other legal issues in this kind of situation might include passing off, trademark infringement and/or invasion of privacy. And that’s just for text — photos bring up a whole other range of things to consider.

    But again, I am not a qualified legal practitioner! Just a copyright nerd.

  3. Valerine on #

    From what I have read on the Library of Congress website in the US, it is pretty much the same. Once a work is in a tangible form (i.e. paper, computer file, etc) copyright exists. You can register your copyright, but it’s usually done by a publisher. Unless you plan on self-publishing, it’s not worth the worry.

  4. Jacob on #

    “Why, I know readers who do not acknowledge that Angela Carter is a genius. Insanity!”
    I’ve heard this from some people and I picked up one of her books (The Magic Toyshop) and didn’t like it at all. What is good by her?

  5. Nicholas Waller on #

    Copyright is similar in the UK, ie simply writing something original creates your copyright, even letters – posting them to someone does not transfer copyright. So for a high-profile instance Princess Diana’s personal letters to James Hewitt remained the copyright of her/her estate, and Hewitt could not publish them. “If you buy a painting from an artist you buy the canvas, frame and oils but you do not buy the copyright,” he [an expert] said. “You could argue that when the princess wrote the letters she was giving him the paper and the ink but not the copyright.

    And as for riffing on, reusing, referring to, building on etc other people’s works, a current case in point is the speech by Mr Lowery you quoted in another post: “when black will not be asked to get in back” was a knowing reference to the 1947 Big Bill Broonzy song Black, Brown and White: “Now, if you was white, you is alright/If you was brown, stick around/But if you is black, oh brother/Get back, get back, get back.” (The red and yellow references were, I guess, Lowery’s own.)

  6. Diana Peterfreund on #

    The place names in my Secret Society stories are all changed. My characters attend an Ivy League university in New Haven Connecticut, and it looks and acts just like Yale, but it’s called Eli. I change all the little names too: It’s not Skull & Bones, it’s Rose & Grave, it’s not Davenport College, it’s Prescott College, etc. No one made me do this, and I don’t know the legal ramifications if I hadn’t bothered, but to me it felt strange saying “there aren’t girls in Skull & Bones in 2006” (since there are) so I changed the name to Rose & Grave; then it felt strange to say “Rose & Grave is the most notorious society at Yale” since it doesn’t exist, and then once I decided to change the name of the school, it became a game to give everything on campus funny alterna-names. I get fan mail from readers familiar with Yale who say they get a kick out of the way I’ve changed the names. It just helps me think of it in more fictional terms.

    However, in my YA coming out next summer, Rampant, it’s set in real Rome, and all the buildings and neighborhoods and ruins and such are real. The only thing that’s changed is the fact that, um, there’s no real unicorn-hunting nunnery there, but the actual building is cobbled together from aspects of real nunnery’s and churches in the same neighborhood. Not many reviews out yet, but one that is praises the setting details of Rome.

    All of which is to say you can go either way. Just depends on what makes you comfortable enough to write the story. With the Yale books, I needed a veneer of fiction to separate it out in my head; it wasn’t as necessary to me with a book that was so clearly fantasy — with that, I needed grounding in reality.

  7. Michelle Madow on #

    Thank you, Justine! I’m excited to show my friends what I’ve got of my book so far to read their feedback! 🙂

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