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May 30, 2023

by Gail Wind

At our spring event, “Stay on the Write Side of the Law,” Cindy Hill gave us a two session, crash course in the ins and outs of copyrighting and the pitfalls we might encounter in our writing in regard to defamation and privacy laws.

The morning session concentrated on what a copyright really is, when you need to officially copyright your work and how to avoid copyright infringement. She walked attendees through an exercise that taught the principle that copyright exists from the moment the work is created in a tangible form. She went on to explain that you will have to register your copyright, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.

Cindy explained the difference between having an original idea (not copyrighted) and writing it down (copyrighted.) Not even the most original of titles is copyrighted, nor are things such as lists, phone books and the like.

She went through several tricky scenarios where your writing copyright is surrendered such as writing for hire, or selling your work to a website without checking the fine print to see if you retain copyright rights.

Cindy touched on the “life of copyright” and how there are very specific laws regarding when or if a document enters the public domain. Just because a book is out of print, does not release the copyright. She went through the ways and means of getting permission to use a creator’s work, and how to grant permission for someone to use yours. She directed us to https://www.copyright.gov/ for more in-depth information and the place to register your work to fully legally protect it.

The afternoon session was a bit spicier, as it dealt with defamation and privacy laws regarding what we write. Cindy’s handouts were very comprehensive and referencing them will help to remember all she taught the group. She covered topics including the definition of defamation, the danger of being sued if you are not aware of these legal principles and how to identify problems in our own writing. Journalists and memoir writers are especially vulnerable to these problems. Just because you “know” it is true, doesn’t mean you can print it.

There are very specific, but tricky laws dealing with defamation and they amount to a writing minefield if you are not careful.

Invasion of privacy was the next topic of “you better watch out.” Cindy shared some interesting anecdotes about these issues. Mostly, she cautioned the group—think before you write. Is it true; is it an invasion of privacy; will it subject you to a lawsuit; does it really need to be in your book or story? She discussed the possibility of writing fictional accounts based on real events and whether or not you could sufficiently hide the identity of your character(s).

Finally, she suggested that “when in doubt, have it checked out” – before publishing! A legal review of your manuscript before it goes public could keep you and your bank account safe. Lots of great information