Helping Your Writer Client Understand the Law

Lawyers who represent writers often get clients who are either overly concerned that their work will be stolen or not careful enough to protect what is theirs. Many writers are confused by the law when it comes to their rights and what they should do to make sure others don’t infringe on them.

As an attorney with writer clients, it’s helpful to have the most important information regarding writers’ rights in easily accessible form. The following are some topics of discussion that you may find beneficial in helping them avoid future problems.

A Writer’s Work is Protected Under Copyright when Put Into Tangible Form

A writer’s work does not need to be published in order for it to be protected. It also does not have to display the copyright symbol on it, for instance on a manuscript. There is some confusion regarding this point because the law was changed in the 1970s. When a writer’s work is created, it’s by law copyrighted and the existence of this copyright does not need registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. A writer can actually register a copyright after infringement and still enjoy legal protection as if it was registered prior.

Shorter Works Automatically Come With One-Time Rights

Shorter works, which are typically non-book works, automatically come with one-time rights unless a contract specifies otherwise. This means that publications paying for written work can only publish the material once. Anything else is an infringement on the writers’ rights if there isn’t a binding agreement that states differently. The law also states that termination provisions may exist, meaning an author can regain rights assigned to others after a certain amount of time.


Writers’ Work Can’t Accidentally Become Public Domain

Distributed or published material that has had its copyright expire is considered to have fallen into the public domain, which means that it is available for use by all members of the general public without exchange of a fee or the need to receive author permission. It used to be law that a writer’s’ work could accidentally be in the public domain if a copyright registration or symbol was no longer protecting it. This is no longer the case.


A Writer Can Sell Certain Rights to Work and Still Retain Copyright Ownership

Writers can sell various rights to work, but that in no way gives up ownership of the work. The only way a writer can completely give up ownership of the work is to sign a contract that specifically states a “work for hire” situation.


It’s Okay to Quote Others’ Work as Long as You Abide by Fair Use


Generally, any writer can quote another’s work within their own, without the need to obtain permission, if they abide by the fair use guidelines. The tricky part here is that there’s no clear cut rules as to what fair use of a copyrighted work is exactly. The law states that there are 4 things to look at when determining fair use:


1. The character and purpose of use (commercial vs. educational/not for profit)

2. The nature of the used work

3. The substantiality and amount of the portion of work used as it relates to the quoted work as a whole

4. The effect that the use has on the potential market value of or market for the quoted work


If you work with writer clients or want to dive into this field, it helps to focus your CLE courses on copyrights and copyright infringement study.