Mistake No. 35: “Erm, what’s copyright?”

I don’t believe there’s a writer out there who has never heard of copyright, but I reckon there are many who have little idea what it is. If you’re among them, there’s no shame in it. But not doing anything to rid yourself of this ongoing ignorance is, I have come to be reminded over the last few weeks, one of the greatest mistakes a writer can make.

Perhaps you’ve tried to get to grips with it. You have maybe found it a bit dull. You’ve Googled it and all the results have made your eyes glaze over. Other writers you know don’t really seem too sure either. Many think they know about copyright, but they only so-so know about copyright. I don’t know that much, but I think I know enough. Some of what I do know you’ll find on the copyright / legal issues page.

Like any kind of knowledge worth having, knowledge of copyright does involve investment of time and effort. If you’re a jobbing writer, you may not feel you want to invest that time and effort, given you have to invest in that interview you need to conduct, for which you will get paid, or that research at the library for the article you are writing, for which you will get paid, or your weekly column which you always leave to the last minute, but for which you will get paid. Learning about copyright? Which bill will that pay?

Perhaps none this year, or even next year, but eventually, it will pay bills.

I started in 1996. I made it my business to learn a bit about copyright a few years later, and when I then joined the NUJ I began to query and stand up to publishers who demanded copyright through what I thought were unreasonable contracts. Many times I got my way. “Just draw a line through the clause you don’t like,” I was told more than once. Other times I was refused, and I declined the work – in one instance, for a non-fiction book I very much wanted to write. I’m no copyright hero – I have given it up on a handful of occasions, and still might under particular circumstances. But in general, I won’t do it. I think it’s wrong – for me, for others, for the industry in which we work.

Knowledge of copyright and my reluctance to assign copyright in a work to a publisher has meant that I have, on many occasions, been able to license other rights in that work elsewhere. Licensing only First British Serial Rights and not assigning copyright leaves me able to license First Australian Serial Rights and Second British Serial Rights, for example, often through syndication agencies who specialise in selling subsidiary rights.

So copyright can pay. But it’s still a bit, well, boring, right?

If you think it’s boring, then please look at what writer Stacia Kane wrote on her blog a few weeks ago about the subject. She wrote it as part of Jane Smith’s copyright call-to-arms blogging initiative last month, the results of which are collated on her excellent How Publishing Really Works website. If you find copyright dull after reading Stacia’s impassioned post, or, frankly, any of the posts Jane collated, then fair enough – but I can’t help thinking there must be something missing in your writing soul.

Copyright gives value to what we produce. Copyright keeps writers in business and supports creative expression. If it weren’t for copyright, magazines could reprint and recycle work as they pleased and fail to commission writers like us. If anyone could copy anything, then through necessity most of us would have to stop doing what we do. We’d be sucked dry of incentive to create anything. There’d eventually be little worth reading – or a radically limited choice, because only the comfortably off could afford to keep writing. The big name writers would still be up there – but what of the part-timers or ordinary jobbing writers? What of the next generation? The fledgling talents of tomorrow? The investigative journalists of the future?

I could go on, but have a look around and you’ll find more.

So: just be aware of copyright. Don’t disregard it. And at least sometimes please stick up for it.

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