As an indie or self-publishing author, everything is on you. You are responsible for your website, email list, marketing, book covers, and above all else, the actual publication of your book.
You are also responsible for ensuring that you and your work are legally protected. In this post, I will discuss five ways indie authors can legally protect themselves and their work.
Disclaimer: Although I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer and no attorney-client relationship is established with you in any way. All content in this post and on this website is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not legal advice.
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What legal concerns does a self-publishing author have?
You might be thinking to yourself, what legal concerns could I possibly have as a self-publishing author?
You are simply writing and then publishing a book. But let’s not forget that as a self-publishing author you are still a kind of entrepreneur and are engaged in a business. And businesses need legal protections.
What kind of legal protections?
Mainly legal pages and contracts. Your website needs certain legal pages and if you hire anyone to do work for you, whether it is a book cover designer or editor, you need to have a contract in place.
Your work is also legally protectable by copyright law and understanding what that is and what it means is important.
5 Ways Indie Authors Can Legally Protect Themselves and Their WorkAre you an indie author? Here are 5 ways you can legally protect yourself and your work Click To Tweet
1. Have The Essential Legal Pages On Your Website
There are three essential legal pages your website needs to comply with the laws and be protected legally:
A disclaimer page helps protect you from legal liability arising from your content or any third party links you publish on your website.
The terms and conditions page tells visitors about your website’s rules and constitutes an agreement between you and anyone that visits, uses, or purchases from your website. This page is also important if you sell your books or other merchandise from your website, as this page is where you would outline your refund or exchange policy.
You can learn more about these essential legal pages, such as why you need them and how they protect you here.
I highly recommend this legal bundle.
It contains all three pages that you need on your website. The pages are written by an experienced lawyer. With the bundle you receive:
- Disclaimer page
- Terms and Conditions page
- Lawful use of website clause
- Third-party links disclaimer
- Mandatory arbitration clause
2. Use Contracts
Publishing a book involves a lot of work. You need to write it, edit it, then publish and promote it.
Yes, it is possible to do this all yourself. But that is a lot to take on and you’re likely going to want to outsource a lot of this work to others.
You might hire a graphic designer to create a book cover, an editor or two, and a public relations company to help promote your book. A virtual assistant or personal assistant might also be hired to help with social media management and other administrative tasks.
What does this mean?
It means that you are likely going to be working with a lot of freelancers and are going to need signed contracts to protect yourself.
If the freelancer you hire doesn’t have a contract, you can always prepare your own. I highly recommend this independent contractor/freelancer contract template. This contract is comprehensive and easily customizable.
If a freelancer does provide you with a contract, you want to make sure that it provides:
- How you will pay the freelancer and what amount
- How you can cancel the contract without owing the freelancer any money
- How you and the freelancer will resolve legal disputes and where
- Who the parties to the contract are, what services are being provided, and for how long
3. Copyright Your Book
Copyright is a form of intellectual property. Copyright protects original works of authorship, both published and unpublished. The protection exists from the moment you create the work. Copyright law does not, however, protect ideas.
What does this mean for you as an author?
From the moment you start writing your book, your work is protected by U.S. copyright law, even if it is not officially registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Although copyright protection exists from the moment the work is created, you can only enforce your copyright, or in other words, sue for copyright infringement, if your copyright has been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
If you are concerned about possible infringement before your work is released or are working on a book but are not finished, you can also preregister your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Do you need a copyright notice in your book?
Technically, no. A notice is not required for unpublished works or works published after March 1, 1989. But a notice does have some benefits, such as:
- Notice that the copyright is claimed
- In the case of a published work, a notice may prevent a defendant in a copyright infringement action from attempting to limit his or her liability for damages or injunctive relief based on an innocent infringement defense.
What a copyright notice looks like:
© 2020 John Doe or Copyright 2020 John Doe
A book sometimes also includes the phrase “All rights reserved” or a longer paragraph specifically setting forth the rights and permissions. This language is technically not necessary because the copyright notice itself serves to let readers know that you reserve the right to limit the use of the content. As the owner of the copyright, you, the author, possess certain rights:
- Right to reproduce or make copies if your work
- Right to distribute copies of your work
- Right to create derivative work
- Right to display or perform work publicly
In sum, your work is copyright protected from the moment you begin writing it. If you are concerned about that right being infringed, then you should register your copyright so that you can enforce it.
A note on the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA)
Worries over plagiarism might have you thinking that before you share your manuscript with someone, you should have them sign an NDA.
An NDA, also known as a confidentiality agreement, is a legal contract that limits one or both parties from disclosing information covered by the NDA.
This is not standard in the publishing industry. Also, remember that your work, even unpublished, is protected by copyright law. However, if you want to ask that someone sign an NDA, here’s one drafted by a lawyer.
I would recommend that if you do ask someone to sign an NDA that it be very specific as to what it covers, such as sharing or distributing the work in its entirety. An individual without a legal team is likely going to be wary about signing such a serious legal document and even more so if it is broad and general as to the information it covers.
4. Avoid Copyright & Trademark Issues
In addition to protecting your own copyright, you want to ensure that you are not infringing upon another person’s copyright.
For example, you cannot reproduce song lyrics in a book because they are protected by copyright. You would need express permission from the owner of the copyright. If you are writing a scholarly work or critical review, you may have permission under fair use but fair use would not apply to works of fiction. On the other hand, song titles are generally not copyrightable.
Images are also subject to copyright. Copyright issues concerning images are likely to arise when indie authors are designing their book covers or promotional graphics.
Public domain images and creative commons licenses are two ways to source images and graphics. But you would need to ensure that a photo is indeed in the public domain or that the license permits commercial use.
If you are ever in doubt, your best bet is always to consult a copyright attorney.
In fiction, your characters may live in the same world you inhabit, including the brands and trademarks you’re familiar with.
There are a few legal theories at issue when it comes to trademarks, “trademark infringement,” “trademark dilution,” and “trademark tarnishment.” The most relevant theories for authors are “dilution” and “tarnishment.”
“Trademark dilution” is a legal theory that gives owners of famous brand names a legal right to prohibit others from using those names in a manner that would make them less “distinctive.” For example, Xerox has been fighting for decades to prevent all photocopying from being referred to as “Xerox.” Meanwhile, Google has recently been fighting to prevent their trademark from becoming an equivalent to the default word for searching the internet. Brand “tarnishment” involves the disparaging use of a brand name.
Best practice: if you are going to depict brand name products or companies in an unsavory light, it is best to create a fictional brand or company. If you feel it is necessary to use the actual brand name, then you should seek counsel to evaluate the risks and how to minimize them.
5. Utilize Disclaimers
Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, there are certain legal disclaimers you may want to include to protect yourself from legal liability.
This is a copyright and disclaimer template written by a lawyer that includes a copyright notice, legal disclaimers, and limitation of legal liability language.
You cannot copy and paste disclaimers from books, but in drafting a disclaimer for your book, you might consult similar books to see what language they include.
Writing is an investment. Protect your investment by having the right legal pages on your website and making sure you have a signed contract whenever you hire someone to perform work for you.