Your Right to Write: 6 Legal Concepts Every Author Should Know

Whether you’re a journalist, novelist, poet, blogger, or technical writer, it’s easy to overlook the legal concepts that govern your work. After all, you may be more focused on producing great writing and less concerned with things like liability and intellectual property. If you can catch a break from your work on the next great American novel, take a moment to refresh your knowledge of these six legal terms.

#1 – Copyright

You own the copyright to a written creation as soon as you put your pen to paper. Whether it’s the first draft of your novel, a poem, or a note you scribbled in your journal, it’s protected by copyright for 70 years after your death. That means you alone can reproduce the written work, sell and distribute it, create sequels or adaptations, and display or perform it in public. While publication or registration aren’t necessary, they can help by creating a public record of your copyright in the event that someone infringes upon it. You can also transfer the copyright of your written work to someone else, or grant a license for its use under certain conditions.

#2 – Trademarks

Certain types of writing do not fall under the umbrella of copyright law. The title of your book, for instance, or the slogan you use for your freelancing business are not protected, although you may be able to register them as trademarks. Other works usually cannot be protected by either form of legal registration, such as improvisational performances, ideas, and concepts.

#3 – Fair Use

As noted above, you cannot copy someone else’s original work without permission—unless your treatment of the work is considered “fair use.” It can be tricky to determine what falls under the concept of fair use. You may need to copy the work as part of your job, like if you’re reporting the news, writing a review or critique, or conducting research. People can sometimes infringe copyright by accident, like when they write fan-fiction, copy large portions of text for use in their blog, or use song lyrics in works of fiction without getting a license.

#4 – Invasion of Privacy

If you want to write about real, living people, understand that their privacy is protected by law. It’s possible to invade someone’s privacy by including enough identifying information about that person. When people are portrayed in a written work, they can suffer negative consequences in their daily lives. When it comes to writing about real people, whether you know them or not, it’s important to take care in the way you depict them.

#5 – Defamation

While it shares some similarities with the invasion of privacy, defamation is a matter of reputation. If someone makes a defamation claim, that person must prove that he or she is identifiable within the written work. While writers may legally give opinions, defamation involves a harmful claim that is stated as fact. In other words, you cannot make an unproven statement that damages a person’s reputation—unless it is stated as your opinion.

#6 – Work-for-Hire

If your work as a writer involves freelancing, you should always be aware of the risks to your intellectual property. You may own the copyright to almost anything you write on your own, but if you are employed to write or sign a work-for-hire agreement, the copyright ownership often goes to the employer. Make sure you always read the fine print and decide whether you’re comfortable writing something for another party to own.

If you have any questions about your liability as a writer, or about possible infringement on your intellectual property, you should get in touch with a lawyer who knows your industry. Contact Calevoso Law to speak with an experienced attorney who can put your concerns to rest. We will use a creative and detail-minded approach to address your legal needs.