A Quick Copyright Primer

These 60-second reads about the writing life include  practical advice and guidance on book publishing. They will be gathered in a new book scheduled for late 2017 called What Would William Shakespeare Do?

I’ll let you know when it’s ready to read.
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Like most aspects of book publishing, it’s important to focus on the historic role of printers when it comes to understanding how the business works. This is especially true when it comes to understanding copyright.

Simply put, the term copyright means just what it says—the right to make copies of a work. This idea originated in the very early days of publishing when printers (who were also booksellers) realized that the work of some writers was more popular than others. (Yeah, some things never change.)

That realization led to a competition among printers for the exclusive right to make copies of books by popular authors. (Popular Authors = More $$ for Printers.)

This competition is also the origin of the practice of giving money to authors (commonly referred to as “advances” because they are advances on estimated sales of a book) in return for an author’s agreement to work with only one printer at a time.

While printers have always kept a tight leash on their own authors, they haven’t always respected the rights of someone else’s authors. In fact, one of the reasons that Charles Dickens visited America in 1842 was to persuade printers in this country to respect his copyrights. His pleas fell on deaf ears because American printers were making a bundle selling pirated copies of the popular author’s works.

(Dickens’ feeling about America are best discovered in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Let’s just say he didn’t like us much.)

The right to make printed copies of a work is not the only right an author can sell. There are foreign language rights, movie rights, television rights, audio rights, electronic book rights, etc. etc. etc.

In many cases, publishing contracts buy all of those rights from the author at the same time. (This includes contracts between authors and self-publishing companies.) Those rights may have a limit on them but most of time, publishing companies buy all the rights to a book for eternity.

And getting them back is often an expensive and very, very frustrating struggle for the author.

The only way an author can truly own her or his own copyrights is to publish their books independently.




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