Green Eyes

All of us fall prey to the green-eyed monster once in a while.  For an editor like me, it starts lurking when I see others make content production look so easy by taking copyrighted material from elsewhere.  I’ve read books—often self published—that take great swaths of material under copyright and reuse it with no permissions acknowledged.  You can build big books that way.  Quickly.  And there are websites that use  crisp, clean images that look more immaculate that any kitchen counter.  Often those images, however, come from sources “protected” by copyright.  With a web this large, who’s going to find them?  They’re not making money off them (usually) so what’s the harm?  My jealousy, I suppose, comes from working in publishing where copyright is a daily concern.  It’s the currency in which we peddle.

Copyright isn’t intended to make websites like this one look lackluster.  No, it’s intended to protect the intellectual property, or visual or auditory inspiration, or the creator.  It’s a remarkable idea, really.  If I have an idea, it’s mine.  Once I express it in written, aural, or visual form, it is covered by copyright.  (We haven’t figured out a way to regulate original smells and tastes yet, beyond protecting their recipes.)  Putatively copyright is to protect the creator’s rights.  In fact, it tends to impact the publisher more.  This week at work I had to spend some time, once again, reviewing copyright law.  One thing most authors don’t comprehend is that a book contract is a negotiation for trading rights for royalties—turning ideas into money.  Even intangibles can be purchased.  Intellectual property can have a fence around it.  And a dog or two in the yard.

I try not to violate copyright.  When I want to borrow my old published ideas in new venues, I rewrite them.  When I want to use somebody else’s pictures on this blog I take them from public domain or fair use sources (thank you Wikimedia Commons!).  A great number of them are my own that  I cast upon the web, hoping they will come back to me in time of need.  With the exception of one guest post many years back, all the words on this blog (approaching a million-and-a-half, at this point) have made their way from my addled brain through my trembling fingers and onto the internet.  Maybe I just want to protect my babies.  Maybe some would call it jealousy.  I like to think of it as a mother bear and her cubs.  Or perhaps the spawn of a green-eyed monster.

Epigraphic Ephemera

Photo credit: Napoleon Sarony, via Wikimedia Commons

“We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities.” ― Oscar Wilde

In certain kinds of books, epigraphs are popular.  In fact, I’m currently reading a book where every part of every chapter begins and ends with an epigram.  It starts to taste like an epigram cracker after a while.  Don’t get me wrong, every great once in a while there’s a quote that just illustrates your point in a chapter so pithily that you can’t resist.   Still, epigraphs ought to come with a warning label.  Working in publishing one of the first things I learned is that unlike quotes in the body of a text, an epigraph that’s covered by copyright isn’t considered “fair use.”  It’s an ornament, an embellishment.  If you want to use one, you need to get permission from the rights holder.  (Unless it’s in the public domain.)

While the idea of copyright itself isn’t that complicated—the creator of intellectual property is the owner of said property—copyright laws can be complex.  Publishers discourage the use of epigraphs (which only academics seem to use any more) because of permissions complications.  You see, when you publish a book (or article) you’re trading your copyright for whatever emoluments the publisher or the journal has to offer.  Most publishers, no matter how noble, are businesses.  There are costs with producing books.  If someone wants to reuse part of a another book—apart from the standard academic quote—they must have permission to do so.  Epigraph permissions can really slow a book down.  And make it expensive.

Reading is an involved process.  We human beings are seldom given such direct access to the interior lives of others.  Think about it—books are private thoughts made public.  Sometimes writers like to show that others have been thinking along similar lines, especially if what they have to say challenges convention.  Thus the epigraph.  The quotable quote.  But did you have permission to take that?  I like poetry.  It takes longer to read than prose, but it says so much in so few words.  That means using poetry in epigraphs becomes a nightmare.  Rights holders often charge by the percentage of the poem used.  And once a book becomes e book there no stopping the spread of its epigraphs used so carefully by permission.  Indeed, e-books are easily pirated, increasing the concerns of those who sell other’s thoughts for a living.  Before sticking that clever quote at the start of your chapter, it’s worth pondering the epigraph above (in the public domain, of course).

The Labyrinth of Copyright

Here’s another post originating from my daily work as an editor. (As an editor you tend to assume nobody’s really interested in what you do all day, but I’ve been told this isn’t so.) What is copyright? And do I have it? First of all, a caveat: I’m not a lawyer. Copyright is complex and, to answer my second question first, yes, you do have it! So what is copyright? Essentially it’s the protection of intellectual property. As long as that property remains in your head, it’s yours alone. Once it’s expressed in writing, art of any kind, music, or even as a chart, it is automatically covered by copyright. If you want to use something someone else wrote, or produced, in your book, you need permission. Small quotes are generally considered fair use, but don’t push that doctrine too far! Fair use is listed as just that, a doctrine.

What many authors don’t realize is that your book contract is an exchange—you’re selling your copyright to the publisher for their services (they publish your book, promote it, register the copyright (it already has copyright, but registering helps to protect it legally), and handle the financial aspects of selling your book). You can’t publish your own work again without permission of the publisher. Sometimes I’ve had people ask me to use my artwork (from my own published articles) in their work. I don’t mind, of course, but I don’t own the copyright! If I published my work, the publisher has taken that copyright and I remain simply the author. If I want to publish my own published work somewhere else, I have to ask permission. Copyright, however, doesn’t last forever.

The only safe date before which material can be used without fear of infringement is 1922. Works published before then are in the public domain. Right now new works (such as this blog) are covered by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 more years. After that, unless the law changes, you don’t need permission to reuse these idiosyncratic musings. Not that that’s ever been an issue. I’m not a litigious person, but I do like to be cited. (Who doesn’t?) In any case, if you’re working on an academic piece, and you want to reuse somebody’s drawing, or an extended piece of writing, or even a tiny bit of a poem, you must have permission to do so. That’s what copyright does for you. The “fair use doctrine,” like most doctrines, doesn’t hold up well in court. If in doubt, just ask. Before you do, though, you might want to consult a copyright lawyer, just in case.

All opinions my own.