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Self-publishing someone else’s materials

About Books and Publishing

A column for BookWorks by Randy Stapilus.

A while back I worked with a writer who had written a good memoir, but it was riddled with issues about words he didn’t write.

This wasn’t plagiarism. He wanted to quote from popular songs that related to his story. The lyrics would have helped his narrative. But I told him he either had to get written permission to use the lyrics, or drop them. The permissions process proved cumbersome, and soon the lyrics were out.

I’ve advised writers to cut all sorts of material that wasn’t theirs from their manuscripts. In each case they intended to acknowledge the original sources, but that wasn’t enough: They needed to get written permission. Before you consider sending your book out to the world, think carefully about anything in it you didn’t write yourself, or get specific permission to use that material.

Earlier this year, working with a traditional publisher, I submitted pictures, with a variety of ownership backgrounds, for a book. Two of those photos were taken by friends who encouraged me through Facebook communication to use their photos in the book. I cut and pasted that dialogue, but by the publisher’s legal standards that wasn’t enough: The publisher required signatures from the photographers on their in-house permission forms (which I then obtained) before the pictures could be used.

This is not a matter of ethics: It’s a matter of protecting yourself legally. The Internet makes cutting and pasting easy, but it makes exposure of copying simple as well.

Some people make a living from finding copies of words or pictures reproduced without permission. Certain law firms in recent years have made a specialty of patrolling the web looking for duplicates of copyrighted material (often from newspapers and magazines), and filing or threatening to file lawsuits when they find them. You don’t want to be on the expensive receiving end of that action.

Your best defense: Stick to publishing that which you produce yourself.

This doesn’t mean you can’t reference (delete) what other people say. You simply have to be cautious about it.

Short quotes, a sentence or so in length, usually are not a problem, though reproducing even a single lyric line of a popular song can be a problem. Any recent copyrighted picture, without some indication permission, can be an issue.

Remember that copyright doesn’t have to be registered to be legally effective. My original copyright to these words, for example, became effective the moment I typed them on my computer.

The good news is that lots of online material now requires no permission at all.

Many online publishers (Wikipedia is one) release their materials under a “creative commons” license, which allows users to share and copy the original, sometimes with a requirement that it be attributed. For the most part, what is on Wikipedia, images as well as text, is available this way. Specific permissions for pictures and some other materials are hyper-linked to each one.

Creative Commons has grown into something of an international movement; its site at is extensive. It is even developing its own software, such as The List, which it describes as “a new mobile app that allows anyone to create and share a list of wanted images, and allows users to respond by taking pictures and sharing them in a global archive, all licensed” under creative commons.

More open still are works in the public domain, a broad area that includes many public documents, old documents that existed before copyright or have fallen out of copyright. Anything published in the United States before 1923 is out of copyright and in the public domain. Wikipedia keeps a list of works that fall into the public domain by year; it compiled a long list for 2014.

The Wikipedia roster of sources for public domain images is massive, including its own collection of about 25 million images but also much more besides.

A great trove of free images, more than 50 million by one estimate, became available last year for online publishers with the Getty Images collection, which allows online users access as long as they attach a footnote referencing back to Getty.

Goodreads also has an impressive collection of public domain books, in a range of formats. And still more materials can be found on an Electronic Frontier Foundation web page about copyright law. It lists places where public domain works can be found, from the New York Times public domain archives (the paper itself is copyrighted, of course) to Project Gutenberg.

I probably should have told that author who wanted to use song lyrics that he had plenty of options. He just had to stay away from music lyrics and do a little more digging.

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