Following copyright law is essential for authors

June 15, 2016 | by Ken Walker

Even though copyright law has been around for centuries, many would-be authors still fail to appreciate its significance.

In a nutshell, I would define meeting copyright rules as giving credit where credit is due. Grab someone’s photograph, artwork or published work and use it in your book, article or other writing without attribution (and, if necessary, permission) and you could face a lawsuit or costly process to correct the oversight.

I learned about this at the first writers conference I attended. The acquisitions editor of a major publishing house told about being on the verge of releasing a book when they got a call from a poet. Turns out the woman learned her work was appearing in this book, but the author had never obtained the poet’s permission to use it. The result: a costly settlement to avoid legal action that would have ended with the poet winning.

Obtaining permission

I recently worked as a developmental editor on a book for a company that helps authors self-publish. The author had sent me numerous photographs that he thought would spruce up his project, along with a request for my feedback on the best placement for them.

After a second batch of photos and artwork arrived, it dawned on me that he had likely found most of this material online without any consideration for whether the owners of those images cared if he used them.

At that point, I asked the chief editor to intervene and explain in more detail why the author needed to obtain such permission—even if it was his book.

The editor told him about another author using a simple piece of artwork from an online source.  Turned out these clips were posted by a guy hoping to catch someone infringing on his “rights.” Then he would send a letter demanding $750 to prevent a lawsuit. In this case, the author had no choice but to pay the fee or face a legal battle that she would have lost.

Crediting the source

Since adding photographs or artwork to a book adds considerably to the printing expense, most would-be authors are more likely to face about the issue of quoting from someone else’s work.

As long as it’s only a small portion of a published book, article or online source, that falls under what is known as “fair use.” In other words, if you correctly quote the source and credit the source (title, publisher, copyright year and page number) in the footnotes at the end of the book, you have met legal requirements.

The issue that becomes a bit murky: what constitutes fair use. That acquisitions editor insisted anything more than 50 words required permission. Others have said they go up to 250 words; another author told me they would use up to 500. I generally have stayed in the 200-word neighborhood.

Practical considerations

This has a practical aspect. Many authors whose work is worth quoting are busy people, and tracking them down to ask if they’re OK with you quoting two or three paragraphs from their book is time-consuming for both of you.

However, sometimes making sure there won’t be a problem is worth the time and effort. I recently contacted a publisher about quoting a poem that appeared in the book of an author who has since died. Because the publisher wanted more specifics about publisher, the size of the printing and such—and we’re still in manuscript stage—I told the permissions department I would get back to them later.

It’s a matter of better safe than sorry.


Topics: Leadership, Ministry, Teaching Resources, Vision



Ken Walker

An experienced freelance writer, co-author and book editor, Ken Walker edits blogs for several contributors to Church Central and has coached various bloggers for the site. A member of the Christian PEN (Proofreaders and Editors Network), he has co-authored, edited or contributed to more than 50 books. You can see samples of his work or ask about his services as a writing coach by going to http://www.KenWalkerWriter.com or by e-mailing kenwalker33@gmail.com.

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