Guest Post: Melissa Edwards on Copyright Law

Ever wondered whether you need to register your manuscript for copyright before you send it out? Agent, lawyer, and friend to Doug the Pug Melissa Edwards has some things to tell you. Let’s learn things!

Copyright and Wrong by Melissa Edwards

Here’s the scene: you just wrote your first manuscript and you’re ready to send it out to agents to shop for representation. Congratulations! What an achievement! But before sending, your mouse poised over the send icon on your computer, you think, “uh, are they going to steal my book? I just put my blood, sweat, and tears into this manuscript and now I’m going to send it over the Internet without any protection at all?! PANIC!”

Take a sip. It’s going to be OK.

Your manuscript is protected as soon as you put it into fixed form (type it on a computer, hand write it on a legal pad, etch it into stone, etc.) The Constitution of the United States (with extra help from the Copyright Act of 1976) protects you from harm.

First, let’s get some lingo out of the way. The protection you seek for works of authorship is copyright protection. This is not the same as trademark protection, which protects a brand in commerce, and it is not the same as a patent, which protects inventions. Those are entirely different types of intellectual property law and the words are not interchangeable.

For the most basic copyright protection, all you need is a work of authorship, that is original, and fixed. Protection under the Copyright Act of 1976 will get you approximately your life plus 70-years’ worth of exclusive use. Registration with the U.S. Copyright office is not necessary for protection. Generally, your work is registered by your publisher, after it’s fully edited. If you register an unedited manuscript before you send it out to agents, it’s going to be slightly problematic to register another draft of that same work later on. That being said, you must register your copyright before you’re legally permitted to bring a lawsuit to enforce it and timely registration creates a legal presumption your copyright is valid. If you’re planning to self-publish, registration is not a bad idea.

“But what if someone steals my idea?!” Ideas are not copyrightable. If you have an idea for a novel but you haven’t written it, you have no protection. Just because you thought a book about a boy wizard would be cool in 1995 doesn’t mean J.K. Rowling infringed on your work.

You may have heard the phrase “derivative work” being bandied about. A derivative work recasts or transforms some expression from a previous work and thereby creates a new copyrightable work. You still need permission to use the underlying work—hence fan fiction is technically infringement. The exceptions to this rule include works in the public domain (i.e. when a work is so old, it’s no longer protected by copyright) and fair use.

Fair use is another often misused phrase. The courts use a four part fair use test when determining if a derivative work was fair use or infringement. These questions include the purpose of the new work (commercial v. educational?), the nature of the original work (factual v. fictional?), the amount of the portion used (heart of the work?), and the effect on the potential market for the existing work. The answers to these questions can be argued in every which way, thereby racking up the legal fees. The most famous type of fair use is parody. Be careful if you’re borrowing copyrighted material in your work—fair use is a wobbly leg to stand on! You can always seek permission from the underlying rights holder—this is called, unsurprisingly, a permission.

Last point before I bore you to tears with all this legal nonsense, authors should always keep the copyright in a publishing contract. The book should be registered in your name, not the name of the publisher.

Now go off and send your manuscript to agents without concern! (And don’t mention copyright in your query. It’s unnecessary and the mark of an amateur.)

Follow Melissa on Twitter @MelissaLaurenE


Guest Post: Karl Jones of Grosset & Dunlap

Today is the first in a new feature, the guest post! Karl Jones is an editor at Grosset & Dunlap, the mass market imprint of Penguin Young Readers. He’s here to tell you about licensed publishing. What is it? How can you do it? Why would you want to? Ladies and germs, put your hands together for Karl Jones.


“Why would I want to write for licensed publishing?!”

While I’ve never heard this exact phrase spoken aloud, I’ve felt the dismissive stares and seen more than my fair share of raised eyebrows at publishing events from New York City to the Rocky Mountains.  Some folks assume licensed publishing isn’t sexy.  They’re wrong.  Others think the stories are lacking in creativity. Also wrong.  But more importantly for aspiring authors looking to get their feet wet before jumping head first into the wacky world of children’s literature, dismissing licensed publishing projects means many of them are overlooking some great opportunities to hone their craft and most importantly, get paid to write.

For those not in the know, licensed publishing includes an expansive side of the publishing industry in which books are made about existing creative properties such as movies, television shows, toys, video games and more.  Licensed books are as diverse in content and format as their traditional trade counterparts, including fiction, non-fiction, activity, picture books, and more but they are unique from trade publishing in that the characters and worlds that drive the content already exist other media platforms, oftentimes more than one.

Here is my brief and incomplete list for what becoming an author for a licensed publishing project can do for you!

  1. You can say you’re a published author. You may not have sold your big manuscript yet, but you can honestly impress your friends at cocktail parties with lines like, “well my editor thought my comic timing was on point but suggested that I tighten up the plot a bit,” or “the contracts department at [INSERT MAJOR PUBLISHING HOUSE] called yesterday to ask how I wanted my name to appear on the copyright line,” or my favorite “I just received my free author copies in the mail and I’d love to give you one!”
  2. You will learn how to manage successful relationships with actual book editors. Editors are busy people. Many of us edit anywhere from twenty to fifty titles (and sometimes more) each year.  In licensed publishing, the timetables are often fast and furious and we have to rely on authors to deliver outlines, finish manuscripts, and complete revisions on time.  If you can successfully survive writing a book on a licensed title timeframe, you’ll have earned some trusted friends in the industry.  We can’t afford to buy you presents but we can provide you with some impressive connections. Which means…
  3. You immediately gain new contacts in the publishing industry. In addition to your editor, you’ll likely develop relationships with designers and illustrators, as well as other editors on the team. Once you’ve delivered one rushed deadline manuscript in a timely fashion, the editor whose tush you saved will pass your information on to their colleagues and you’ll have more work coming your way in no time.
  4. You’ll see the world in new ways. Whether you’re playing the hot new video game you’ve downloaded with a free access code on the Steam platform or binge watching episodes of the a show with a zany grandpa and a giant, flying, realistic tiger, you’ll be exposed to the many ways kids today experience storytelling beyond the book.
  5. You will be able to speak “kid” again. Remember when grownups just didn’t understand? Accessing these fun and often educational properties will give you the vocabulary you need to be the cool mom/uncle/cousin/neighbor.
  6. The New Yorker said it’s ok for you to be impressed by storytelling that doesn’t win literary awards. I love it when certain intellectuals get shady about which types of entertainment have intellectual merit.  Calm down, smarty-pants.  I read obscure lit mags too, as well as the New Yorker cover to cover.  Enjoying a beautifully animated television series makes me even smarter sometimes.
  7. “Boundaries can often be creatively exciting.” I asked one of my trusted authors, Brandon Snider who writes for a variety of media and even appears on television from time to time what he thought about writing for licensed publishing projects.  He said this:

“What I value as a writer of licensed publishing is the discipline that’s required of me to work within a set of guidelines but then bring my own voice to the work itself. It’s a challenge. Boundaries can often be creatively exciting. I’m lucky to have been freedom to grow and stretch because an editor trusts I’ll know how far I can take things without deviating from the source material.”

  1. The Licensed Publishing field is incredibly dynamic and the books are really good right now. I am ceaselessly impressed by the quality of books I see coming out each year (not to mention the ones we make here) from all of my colleagues in the business.  I’d say you’ll never be prouder of working on a licensed book . . . but the books coming out next year are going to be even better.  I know.  I’m already looking for authors to write them.

Now that I’ve wooed you to sparkly side of licensed publishing, you might wonder: How do I get a work-for-hire gig?  Most imprints post their submission guidelines online and I’ve found authors who’ve submitted samples of their writing with an express desire to write work-for-hire projects.  I’ve also encountered writers through various SCBWI conferences and workshops who’ve followed up with me after the events to discuss possibilities.  Like anything, you’ll have to do a bit of networking and research to find the editors in charge of the types of properties you’d like to write for, but we all know research is half the writing process, so it’s great practice.  See you on the sparkly side!

Karl Jones is an Associate Editor for Penguin Random House with the Grosset & Dunlap, PSS!, and Cartoon Network Books imprints.  He edits licensed books, acquires middle grade fiction and develops unique IP projects.  He is constantly on the lookout for the most creative authors in the business. Tweet him your love and thanks for this post @karljones