copyrightSomething that always astonishes me is the disregard authors can have for copyright.

Here’s the simple reality: you can’t just take things from elsewhere and use them.

Why would you be able to do? Why should you be able to? How would you feel if somebody took a chunk of your book and started using it for their own benefit? Worse, how would you feel if they used it and they didn’t accredit you?

Let’s begin with song lyrics. No, no, no, no, no. You can’t just grab a couple of lines from a Rolling Stones’ song and use it. No. You can’t even take a couple of lines from some pub band’s song and use it. You have to get permission. Usually, this is from the artist or the record company. Just be warned: obtaining rights is usually time-consuming and expensive. (As an aside, all those websites on the net that post lyrics are actually in violation of copyright.)

How about images? You see something great on Facebook and grab it. It’s on the net, so you can use it, right? No. Somebody owns the rights to that image. Again, just because it’s on the net doesn’t mean it’s free to use. Similarly with diagrams, graphs, etc. Somebody’s put work into creating these. In all likelihood, they’ve created them to benefit from them, and not so you can reap the rewards.

Usually you’re okay quoting a small passage from an external source, as long as you accredit it (unless the author doesn’t want to be accredited). Usually. It can depend on how meritorious that passage is. You might be a Life Coach and want to use an exercise Tony Robbins has in his book – it’s just a tiny passage, no bigger than a paragraph. No problem. Right? Wrong. This is his intellectual property. Why should you profit from it? If people can get Tony Robbins’s exercise from you, you’re undercutting Tony Robbins. The problem here is you might take a passage and think you’re okay, but if the copyright holder objects, then you’re in trouble. I’ve had the Tony Robbins’ empire object to an author using one of his exercises; I’ve had another author object to one paragraph from his book being quoted.

Don’t think rejigging the sentence gives you ownership either. Consider this single sentence on the ‘Novel’ from Wikipedia (

    A novel is a long narrative, normally in prose, which describes fictional characters and events, usually in the form of a sequential story.

If I change it to this …

    Describing fictional characters and events, a novel is a long narrative, usually in prose and normally in the shape of a sequential story.

… I’m still plagiarising!

Also, if your book is an ebook (or going to become an ebook), Amazon performs an automatic check of the text, will report if it finds it duplicated elsewhere on the net, and will ask if you own the rights to the material. There’s examples where you might, e.g. your book might contain your blogs, or articles you’ve had published elsewhere. In this example, I don’t. My alternative is then to not publish, or to lie.

About the only time you don’t need copyright is when that copyright has expired – in Australia, usually 50–70 years after the authors’ death. Otherwise, if you’re using anything that’s not yours, SEEK PERMISSION. Most publishers will have somebody you can contact specifically for permissions. When all else fails, email whoever handles their general queries. Alternatively, most authors/artists can be found on social media. If it’s a case of some random image floating around and you can’t find out who owns it, bad luck. Don’t use it.

And don’t expect your editor or your publisher to identify what you can and can’t use either. This is your responsibility. A third party isn’t always going to be able to identify that you lifted several paragraphs from somebody else’s article or book, or that nifty bit of dialogue is actually a character quoting lyrics from some obscure grunge band’s song, or that the image you’re using on the title page of chapter 7 was lifted from some friend of a friend’s Facebook post.

This is up to YOU.

Trying to track these copyright-holders might be tedious and time-consuming, and in some cases it might even be costly, but consider the alternatives:

  • Your book could be pulled from the market.
  • There could be financial liability.
  • Your reputation will be damaged, if not ruined.

So is it worth it?

There mightn’t be a lot of original ideas left in the world. A love story is still just a love story. A disaster story is still a disaster story. A business book on growing your business is still just a business book on growing your business. A life-coach book on improving your life is still just a book on improving your life. Etc. These books – and more – saturate the market.

What’s original is YOU – how you write it, what you have to say, and where you take whatever you’re writing.

Remember that when you start writing.

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