Ignorance of Copyright Law Isn’t a Legal Defense by Victoria Lynn Smith

How can we protect ourselves from the landmine of copyright issues?

We all know that using another writer’s words without giving her credit breaks copyright law. In school we were warned against plagiarism. Remember? If you use more than three words in a row of another writer’s words without citing—plagiarism. If you use another person’s theories, original ideas, or reasoned conclusions without citing—plagiarism. If you quoted someone’s words or even paraphrased them without citation—plagiarism.

For me writing academic papers in high school and college was like typing through a landmine. I cited almost everything to avoid plagiarism, better to be overcautious.

As writers we know our work is protected by copyright law, but we might not know exactly what that means. If we read submission guidelines or have a piece of writing accepted and receive a contract, we encounter different terminology: first-serial rights, reprint rights, digital/electronic rights, all rights, one-time rights (and there are more).

But what about the work of other writers and artists?

As writers we might want to quote another writer’s work or lyrics. Can we? What are the rules? And what’s this fair use thing? Maybe we want to use some succinct, thought-grabbing quotes at the beginning of our chapters. Or we want one of our characters to sing a few bars of a song. Maybe we found the perfect picture or graphic to use as artwork on our blog page. Can we? Is it enough to give credit to the writer or artist? Do we need permission? (Depends. Isn’t that a fun answer?)

Sometimes we run our lives under the it’s-easier-to-just-do-it-and-apologize-later premise. This might work if we cut into the chocolate cake our partner just baked without asking, but it’s a dicey strategy for copyright law and infringement issues. (Actually, cutting that cake without checking if it’s for something special might be just as dicey.) Even though heartfelt apologies and claims we didn’t know the cake wasn’t to be cut might not get us out of the doghouse, we won’t be sued. But infringing someone’s copyrighted material isn’t usurping cake. Apologies, no matter how heartfelt, and claims of ignorance about copyright law, no matter how true, won’t protect us from possibly being sued for damages.

How can we protect ourselves from the landmine of copyright issues? Lake Superior Writers is providing an educational workshop with copyright attorney Mike Kroll, who will explain the basics of copyright law and answer basic questions about it. Of course, copyright law is complex, so if you have a specific issue that you need legal help with, it’s best to have a copyright attorney advise you in person.

You’re on your own about chocolate-cake rights.

Click here to register for the LSW Zoom workshop – Copyright Tips for Writers

Victoria Lynn Smith lives in Wisconsin by Lake Superior. She writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and articles. She placed second in the 2020 Hal Prize Fiction Contest. In 2019 and 2020, she won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ Short-Short Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television’s Website, Brevity Blog, Better Than Starbucks, and in several regional publications. Her dream is to one day visit the Shetland Islands. For more visit https://writingnearthelake.org/.