Libel, and Privacy, and Copyright, Oh My!

Libel, and Privacy, and Copyright, Oh My!

An important step in writing a book, particularly if you’re self-publishing without the guidance of a legal team, is securing permissions. There are three types of material to consider for permissions:

  • any material that might be copyrighted,
  • any material that might infringe on someone’s privacy, and
  • any material that might be considered libel.

keyboard with gavel on it

Each of these areas is complicated. For example,

  • If you quote an email that someone sent you, the copyright of the material may belong to the person who wrote it.
  • If you take a photo of a sculpture, the sculpture (a work of art) might be copyrighted, and you’d need permission to use the photo, even though you took it.
  • With songs and poems that are relatively short, even a small quote might be too much. The music industry is known for being particularly strict about copyright.
  • If a living person can be identified, even with a name change, you might be infringing on the person’s privacy.
  • A fictional character that is obviously based on a real person, even with a different name, can get you in trouble.
  • In addition to the right to privacy, there is a “right to publicity”; you cannot use a famous person’s name or image to make money without permission.
  • Using “in my opinion” before a negative statement about another person is not enough to protect you from an accusation of libel.

And this is only a sample of the points to consider. The laws about copyright, such as the concept of fair use, can be vague and are often decided in court. Remember that in addition to doing the right thing, you don’t want to get sued, even if you think you’d win.*

Resources

stack of the books mentioned in the textI read four books when I self-published Somewhere and Nowhere, the memoir of my cross-country bike trip. While I still hesitated over certain items in my book and what to do with them, I felt more certain that I had considered every problematic item, and was able to make more-educated decisions. The books were these:

  • Copyright and Permissions by Elsa Peterson: This is a quick read that focuses on copyright. If you want to deal with permissions yourself (see more below) it includes guidance, as well as sample letters.
  • Self-publisher’s Legal Handbook by Helen Sedwick: This is also a fairly approachable book. In addition to copyright, privacy, and libel issues, it covers setting up a business, understanding contracts, working with various types of self-publishing services, understanding taxes, and more.
  • The Copyright, Permission, and Libel Handbook by Lloyd Jassin and Steven Schechter: This is a very detailed book about copyright, privacy, and libel and the one I would read if you want to learn the most about all three issues.
  • The Writer’s Legal Guide by Kay Murray and Tad Crawford: This includes a wide range of information (contracts, taxes, agents, dispute resolution, how to register a copyright), but you can find copyright infringement information in Chapter 5 and privacy and libel information in Chapter 8.

There are also many online articles (like this one), and the US Copyright Office has material online. Writers conferences frequently include a session on copyright or other legal issues, and groups like the Authors Guild sponsor online webinars.

What To Do

words illegal and lega on paper with fingers choosing legalSo, if you have a manuscript written, what’s your next step?

If you want to use copyrighted material and there’s a lot of it, you might work with a permissions editor, who will hunt down the copyright owners, send permission letters, and pay the necessary fees (using your money, of course) or let you know if a fee seems out of your budget. Note that a permissions editor might not work on material that infringes on privacy or could be libelous.

If you want to handle permissions yourself, go through your manuscript line by line and make a spreadsheet with every possible problem. Don’t skip over passages that seem problem-free, because all kinds of things will pop out that you never thought of as problematic when you wrote them (this might be more true for certain types of nonfiction, like memoir). Even if you suspect it’s not really a problem, include it in the spreadsheet so that you feel like you have not missed anything.

lego man at desk with lego police surrounding him
Don’t let it come to this

Then, solve each problem. Some will be easy to check off your list. For example, maybe you’ve included the title of a book; then you read that titles cannot be copyrighted, and so you check off that item. In some cases, you might decide to seek permission. In others, you might decide to cut material to avoid a problem.

What if you don’t have a budget to pay for permissions, or someone just says “No”? Then it is time to rewrite. I know this might seem like a tragedy at first. I struggled with the simple task of changing people’s names, thinking, “It won’t be true anymore!” But then I realized that readers won’t know; they won’t be thinking about whether or not the names are accurate, and ultimately, it won’t affect their experience with my book.

woman standing in grass under sign that says "Wyoming"
Mary at the Wyoming border on the bike trip

In some cases, the rewrites made the book better. For example, while on the bike trip, Mary and I often sang to pass the time. “Blowin’ in the Wind” became a favorite because of the difficulty of biking into the wind. I was pretty sure I could not afford permission to use the lyrics, however. Then I realized that I hadn’t actually known the lyrics when biking—I’d been making them up. It was only once I got home that I searched online and found them, and pasted them into my manuscript. So I changed the passage to have me singing, “How, are the times, of a man, um-de-ahhh, … before he’s asleep on the sand? How many laaa, da-da, white dog ale, before it’s for contraband?” This version actually better captured what happened, and didn’t require permission to use. In another instance, I had to remove a scene to protect someone’s privacy, but the scene was important. I ended up writing a new scene, and as I wrote it, I felt the spirit of the book coming through, and really felt okay about making the change.


Issues of copyright, privacy, and libel can be intimidating. It’s tempting to keep your head in the sand and ignore them. But you will feel better if you learn about them and try to do things right.

* It just seems like I should have a disclaimer on this post, saying I’m not a lawyer and that this isn’t legal advice. I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.

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