DISCLAIMER: I am NOT an attorney, nor do I play one on the Internet. This article contains my experience and opinions only and is not intended to replace legal advice from an industry professional.
NOTE: This is Part 5 of this article series, Copyright and Trademarks… What’s Legal? I highly recommend you begin with Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 by clicking the links below:
What Do I Do If I Find My Work Somewhere Else?
This is almost every author’s nightmare. You check your book sales, happily saunter off to bed, then wake up in the morning to an email from a customer who thinks they found your words in someone else’s book, on someone else’s blog, or posted on social media for all to see… without your permission. What do you do?
After you take a few deep breaths and slow your heartbeat, take the following steps:
- Verify it’s actually your work—word-for-word. If someone’s written something very similar to your words, but it’s not word-for-word, it’s not plagiarism. If someone’s book cover looks similar to yours, but the fonts, color and images are changed and the layout is slightly different, it’s probably not infringing on your design copyright. And if it’s someone who contacted you asking to quote your words in their book and you gave them permission, but forgot because it was a year or so prior to “the incident,” well, that’s a good reason to keep good records.
- After you’ve verified your work is actually being copied without your permission, contact the infringer (the person who copied your work) directly. This is not the time to bring a virtual swat team in to save the day. Often people who copy or quote someone else’s work do so without realizing what they’re doing is actually illegal. It’s your responsibility as the copyright holder to help them realize their wrong and give them a chance to make it right.
- If they never get back to you after you’ve exhausted all options in getting ahold of them (including phone, email, etc.) or if they do get back to you with an “F-U” attitude, then and only then do you proceed to tell them you’re contacting your attorney. If they respond with an, “Oh, my bad” attitude, give them the benefit of the doubt and either kindly request they change their book cover design or remove your copyrighted material from their book or give them permission to quote you. In the case of book cover copyright infringement, never give them permission to use your brand. It will only confuse your customers and you’d don’t want that. But if they’re quoting your words, ask that they add your website and proper attribution to the quote so you get some free traffic. Of course, on the rare occasion they’ve actually published your entire book under their name in blatant plagiarism (and somehow avoided Amazon’s bots designed to stop this kind of activity), go after them with everything you’ve got. Anyone who’s taken a basic elementary school English class knows what blatant plagiarism is. To me, there are no excuses for that.
- Don’t make empty threats. If you say you’ll contact your attorney, get yourself an Intellectual Property lawyer, pronto! Have the lawyer send the infringer a Cease and Desist order. And always follow the lawyer’s advice.
- Usually this fixes everything and you can go on your merry way. Keep in mind, if you end up with an attorney by your side, this process can take time, so rather than focus and fret over the situation, channel that negative energy into something constructive… like writing your next book!
What If I Inadvertently Copy Someone Else?
If you’ve read this entire blog series and then copy someone else, frankly, shame on you. 😉 But if you’ve found something you did in the past was actually infringing on copyright and you’re in danger of receiving a Cease and Desist order, or worse, losing your ability to sell your books on Amazon, here are the steps you should take:
- Make sure you’re actually infringing on someone else’s copyright. The quotes in your book may fall under fair use or public domain and be fine to leave as-is (click here to discover how you can tell if that’s the case).
- If you do feel you may be infringing, immediately update your book. Put the quoted material in your own words, change your book cover, whatever it is you need to do to make your book uniquely your own and not an imitation of someone else’s.
- You can choose to leave it at that (if it’s a cover design issue, definitely do not revert back to the infringing design), or if that quote you wanted was just perfect and you can’t possibly spin it any better than the original author, now’s the time when you’ll want to contact the author for permission.
- After you get written permission, include the proper attribution wherever the copyright holder requests (usually on the copyright page of your book, on the same page as the quoted material, or both) and republish your revised book.
What If I’m Not Sure?
If you’re not sure if you’re infringing on copyright or not, then always err on the side of caution and get written permission to use the material. If you’re not sure if someone else has actually violated your copyright, that’s where an IP attorney can save the day and give you peace of mind.
I do not recommend that any author dive into the world of including anything previously published in their books without the advice of an authority on such matters… Unless you’ve taken classes and know for a fact your sources reside in the public domain. Even Fair Use law has its limits and can be a flimsy tightrope walk at best. Instead of walking the fine line between your future as a successful author and your future as someone with a public record, do your due diligence, do your research and spend the time necessary to make sure you’re in the clear.
Copyright issues are not something to screw around with. Protect yourself, protect your work, and don’t copy someone else or something that’s been done before. Be YOU. That’s what the world wants, anyway!
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This article concludes this series, Copyright and Trademarks… What’s Legal? Leave your thoughts in the comments and share this article with others so authors everywhere can have the tools necessary for success!