Poetry News

A Little Legal Advice for Self-publishers

By Harriet Staff

Bernard Starr at Huffpo is dishing some jurisprudence for those of you who are self-publishers. For poets, there's a darn good chance you are! Starr gives it straight:

If you self-publish, you are the publisher and thus assume all the legal responsibilities. At first this might seem frightening. But it doesn't have to be, as I discovered in my interview with Paul Rapp, an attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights in Monterey, Mass. and teaches Art & Entertainment Law and Copyright Law at Albany (N.Y.) Law School. He also discusses copyright issues in publishing on Vox Pop on Northeast Public Radio.

Rapp says he is working increasingly with self-publishers and self-published authors. He cited the prominent legal issues that authors should pay attention to: The use of images, quotes, and other materials from copyrighted works, the use of public domain works, the amount of a published works that can be quoted, portrayals of real people in fictional works, the standards for portraying famous and non-famous persons, portrayals of real people in non-fictional works, and the importance of copyright registration.

They wade through a lot of territory, but for the epigraph-inclined we'll give you this taste:

Starr: What about the use of quotes. Is there a limit to how many words you can quote? One editor told me that 300 words was the limit. Elsewhere I've read that it's related to the length of the work you are quoting from and the length of your book.

Rapp: There are no absolute rules like that and people always say there are. There is no fixed rule about the number of words. If the quote drives your narrative, or if you are commenting on the quote or its author, or using a quote to support an argument then it's most likely going to be a "fair use" of the quote, and therefore non-infringing. The publisher of the work you are quoting from may squawk, but it's highly unlikely that they are going to do anything about it. Some publishers have their own standards for how much an author can quote in a book they are publishing in order to somehow justify their own complaints about extensive quotes from their books in works put out by other publishers.

The one tricky area is when people use quotes that are just window dressing. Like when an author quotes the lyrics of a song -- even just couple of lines from a song at the beginning of a chapter, as Stephen King often does. Most music publishers take the position that you need permission because this kind of use, they claim, is not driving the narrative or otherwise a fair use. And they may be right -- the fair use doctrine is horribly imprecise. I've had authors ask me what to do. In those gray area cases, I suggest that they try to get permission. Often the licensing fee is fairly minimal -- although it depends on the song and the publisher.

I recently had an author who was putting out a self-published book that had a scene in a bar where a popular song was playing on the jukebox. He quoted the lyrics that were actually mirroring what was going on in the bar. It was really funny. And I said, that's fair use and you don't need permission because it's integral to the narrative of the work. The publisher might disagree but I say go ahead and use it.

You'll have to get the rest for yourself, here.

Originally Published: December 28th, 2012