Publishing Law 101:
What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

Copyright © 2002 Tonya M. Evans, Esquire. This article may not be copied or distributed without the consent of the author.

DISCLAIMER: The authors are not engaged in rendering legal or other professional services as a result of the information contained in this article, and this article is not meant to constitute legal or other professional advice. If legal or other professional assistance is required, the services of an attorney should be sought.


WE WRITERS, like other artists and creative people, are notorious for getting caught up in the process of creating, often at the expense of fully comprehending and appreciating the business side of writing. We want to create the next great work of fiction, the most referred to reference guide, the most profound poem, the most telling memoir, the wittiest article or short story or essay. To the writer, mastering the craft of writing in order to complete the manuscript and publish the work is often the sole objective.

THESE GOALS, quite obviously, are critical because if we do not nurture and attend to the work during its creation, there is little reason to engage in the process at all. Because of our absorption in the writing, however, little attention is given to the potential legalities we authors face before, during, and after the creative process.

THINK FOR A MOMENT about the countless hours you have already spent (and continue to spend) writing, typing, editing, reading, and critiquing—and writing, typing, editing, reading, and critiquing again. You have undoubtedly attended dozens of writers’ conferences; perhaps you’ve taken writing courses and perused innumerable how-to books on writing, editing, style, and publishing. You have poured over the comments written by family and friends after you’ve circulated your manuscript for the umpteenth time. And there is no doubt that you have done all of these things with the hope of creating the perfect manuscript, of completing your life-long dream to publish your work.

  • While you were hunched over your computer or desk writing the next great literary work, did you ever stop to consider the legal implications, rights, and obligations that may exist because of the words you wrote?

  • When you completed your first novel, poem, or essay, did you stand guard over the stack of pages or the diskette that held your life’s passion, forbidding anyone to see your manuscript for fear that they might steal your brilliant ideas? Or worse, did you fall victim to the myth that if you mailed your manuscript to yourself your copyright interests were somehow protected?

  • Have you ever mentioned the name of a famous (or not-so-famous but just as real) person in your writing and wondered, if only for a moment, whether it was illegal to do so?

  • Do you think you should patent the name of your company, trademark your book, and copyright your invention? In other words, are you confused about which term correctly applies to which type of intellectual property and how the three types can, in fact, interrelate under certain circumstances?

  • Do you hope to sign a publishing contract but lack the knowledge to discuss the basic terms, rights, and obligations with your legal representative, publisher, or agent?

IF THE ANSWER to any of these questions is yes, then you need the facts (not fiction) about the nature of copyright and trademark, how to protect your intellectual property and other rights, how to avoid the illegal use of intellectual property belonging to others, and how to understand and successfully negotiate a publishing agreement. In short, you need a crash course in publishing law, and perhaps a consultation with an attorney who specializes in publishing law or intellectual property to address your particular concerns.

REMEMBER THAT what you don't know about intellectual property ownership and contracts can potentially expose you to legal liability and jeopardize your rights. So take the legalities of writing seriously and become informed about your rights and responsibilities as a writer.


Excerpt from Literary Law Guide for Authors: Copyright, Trademark, and Contracts in Plain Language 
by Attorneys Tonya Marie Evans and Susan Borden Evans