The Confusing World of Copyrights and Permissions – A Brief Overview for the New Author Writing

While I do not recommend spending a lot of time on the legal aspects of publishing until you approach this long-awaited time, there are some good rules of thumb that you should know about. Here are some questions I get regularly:

1. Do you need to protect your manuscript before sending it to agents or publishers? If you are self-publishing, is it a good idea to register your book officially with the Copyright Office?

2. Are you responsible for obtaining permission to use copyrighted material, such as lyrics, in your book? Or does your agent or publisher take care of that?

First, a disclaimer: I am not a copyright lawyer and I am only speaking from my personal experience as author and publisher in the publishing world. Take my advice or advice from the links offered below as a lay person, not as a legal advisor. If you need it, look elsewhere.

The first question, and this may be a relief or surprise to some of you, is legally protected as soon as you write your manuscript, at least in the US. You do not need to give your name (c) 2019 at the bottom of each page. In fact, this brand you as an amateur with most agents and publishers who know the rule. It is said that you have not taken the time to investigate how you can truly protect your work in today's publishing industry.

Can other authors steal your work if you do not provide each page with your copyright? Again, I've found that the industry is pretty transparent – it's a smaller world than you think – and literary theft comes out soon. There are exceptions, but it did not happen to me or to the hundreds of authors I've worked with. The chances are bad that it will happen to you.

In my early years as an author, I consulted an attorney for the Authors Guild in NYC – it's worth looking for those who have published something somewhere, as you can get free legal advice on this and many other topics. I've learned that I could go the extra distance and register the manuscript with the Federal Office of Copyright, but in the opinion of this lawyer, it would only provide a small amount of security if the work was stolen. One agent I respected said, "Do not worry." And I did not do it.

Second question: Do you need to get permissions yourself before turning to an agent or publisher when using others' work? Now you do. In the eighties, when I started publishing, my agent took care of it. Later in the 1990s, after my agent retired and I published with small presses, most of the time they took care of it. I had to send the letters and ask for permission. The fair use has also changed. Some research is helpful here when citing works that are not publicly accessible. Especially lyrics. And publishers often charge a fee for use, or at least for some of my books.

Here's a good basic explanation for the fair use and other requirements you need to know when you include quotes or texts or other copyrighted works in your manuscript. (The shortcut is here; If it does not work, go to and look for copyright information.) If you know this, you can change your mind by including your favorite lines from your favorite songs as inscriptions in your chapters.

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