Writers know they need to know about the law, but often feel uneasy about where to find information that affects them. This article will introduce some of the key legal concerns writers often face.
This article is not legal advice, and the author is not a lawyer. Always make sure to seek your own independent legal advice!
The article is not exhaustive, and provides an overview of some legal concerns, with details about where to do further research.
Legal Resources for Writers
First of all, it’s important to establish where writers should turn for legal advice and guidance, both while writing and when the water gets hot!
Many lawyers specialise in matters related to the arts. And many lawyers primarily represent clients who are writers.
A good way to find one of these lawyers is to ask any of your writer friends and acquaintances if they can recommend anyone to you. Word of mouth and a trusted recommendation is often the best way to go.
If you don’t have trusted places to turn to for advice, you can Google search terms like ‘entertainment lawyer’ and ‘author’s lawyer’. Just make sure you ask around and confirm with people that the lawyer you settle on is reputable and trustworthy!
There are legal societies that specialise in providing advice to artists. They often operate on a low fee, or subsidised basis. They will sometimes provide very cheap legal advice if you pass a means test that shows that you cannot afford to pay higher fees.
Here is one you check out as an example (I’m not suggesting you work with this particular organisation, only that they are an example of a legal service that specialises in low budget legal advice for artists): https://www.artslaw.com.au/
Here is a list of the most common legal problems author’s face. Make sure to always be aware of these areas, and to seek legal advice from qualified professionals when uncertain.
Plagiarism is a Legal Issue that Affects Writers
Copying someone’s work can happen easily and unexpectedly. We all know that taking someone else’s ideas or writing and pretending that our own is illegal and immoral. But sometimes it gets much more subtle and complex than that.
What if you’ve asked a friend for advice and then you incorporated their response into your play. Are they now a co-author?
What about if you hold a read of your play and incorporate some suggestions the actors make. Does the actor now own that line, or do you?
There are many situations in which plagiarism may arise unintentionally, and it’s best to seek advice about exactly where the line is, and what you need to do to protect yourself.
For instance, I’ve read many contracts that stipulate that when a writer is working with a ‘creative developer’ then the latter person needs to acknowledge that no copyright in the project will pass to the developer.
It can be Illegal to Self Publish at the Expense of Your Traditional Publisher
Let’s say you’ve signed a publishing deal. Great! But your books aren’t selling. Oh no!
It might be tempting to get your work online and try to sell it directly to your readers.
Your publisher is not going to be happy about this because they have probably signed a contract with you in which you have promised not to do this. There is every chance that they may sue to recover the funds they will argue they have lost through your self publication.
Your Employer May Own the Copyright to Your Writing
This one is super complex. Seek legal counsel if you get caught up in this area.
Copyright law suggests in many regions that if you create work while in the employ of someone, then they may own the copyright in that work.
For instance, if you write a blog post as part of your job, the copyright in the post may belong with the employer.
But what happens when you are at work and you write a blog post that is not related to work during your break?
Or when you write a post outside of work hours that is related to your work in some way?
Defamation is a Common Legal Problem for Writers
Defamation defined very broadly (see a lawyer for the specifics of defamation in your region) may be when you tell someone something that damages the reputation of someone else.
Let’s say you make a false accusation against someone, or imply something that causes a person’s reputation to suffer such that they cannot find work, you may be breaking the law!
Make sure not to base your stories on particular individuals unless you are very familiar with this area of law, and have sought independent legal advice.
Many books have been destroyed because they defame an individual, and many lawsuits fought and won over reputational damage.
Negligent Publication is a Legal Concern for Writers
This is the type of problem that will arise when you publish something, that someone acts on to their detriment.
If you are giving advice, you must be very careful not to advise someone in a way that could cause them harm. If you gave bad medical (or legal) advice it could result in harm to someone that they might sue for.
These are just some of the concerns that writers regularly face. As you can see there are many challenges and they are subtle.
Writer’s agents are often lawyers, or retain in-house lawyers to advise on legal matters. If you have an agent you may wish to consult them as to whether this is the case.
The important thing is not to ignore the law in your field! Continue to research and find reliable legal advice.
And make sure to seek legal counsel before any significant decisions in your publishing career, and before acting on anything contained in this post!