Are you in breach of copyright?


PIRACY: not as fun as it looks

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” wrote Isaac Newton, to express how much of his work relied on what others had done before him. Including that quote, actually: the first person to use it was Bernard of Chartres, in the 12th century. We all rely on the work of others, but it’s a fine line between standing on the shoulders of giants and outright piracy. Are you an accidental pirate?

Copyright is YOUR responsibility – make sure you’re not breaking the law.

Many people don’t realise that their writing is in breach of copyright or just how serious an issue that is. This is your wonderful first book on your expertise: will it establish your brand or land you in court and destroy your reputation? Copyright is the author’s responsibility, not the editor’s, not the publisher’s, not the printer’s, so you have to make sure you’re not breaking the law.

Every time you use something of somebody else’s, you need to consider copyright – whether it’s their words, their idea, or their model. That means you have to do two things: one, credit them for it; two, get their permission. The law varies slightly between each country, but here are the most common misunderstandings where people think they’re not breaching copyright when they are.

I’m using less than 10%.

It’s still copyright. This confusion comes from the rules for research in schools and universities. These institutions pay a copyright fee to a central body and in return their teachers and students are allowed to copy up to 10% of something, for research only.

Other people have used it.

It’s still copyright. Either those people got permission or they’re in breach of copyright themselves.

It’s really short.

It’s still copyright. Even if it’s only two words, it’s still copyright.  This confusion comes because copyright law talks about “a substantial part” of someone’s work. Here, substantial doesn’t mean “a lot”. It means important, essential, or distinctive. Try this: “Veni, vidi, vici.” It’s only three words, but it’s substantial because it’s important, essential, and distinctive. (Julius Caesar’s been dead a long time, though, so it’s no longer in copyright!) That means every quote you use in your book, however short, needs to be checked for copyright.

The author’s dead, so it’ s out of copyright.

Not necessarily. How long has the author been dead? In most countries, work stays copyright for the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years. (You can check your country on this table.) The author owns their copyright just like any other possession and can pass it on in their will just like any other possession. If the author died less than 70 years ago, someone owns their estate and the copyright. You need to get permission.

It’s already publically available online; doesn’t that put it in the public domain?

No. What people have written on their websites still belongs to them. You can send readers to their websites to see it but you can’t take it and put it in your own work without permission.

A website said it’s anonymous.

It’s probably not. People are incredibly careless with attributing quotes online so you might find three dozen “inspirational quote” sites all saying it’s anonymous, when it’s not. (For some reason, it’s usually Maya Angelou. I have no idea why, but she seems to be the most quoted and least attributed of all authors.) It’s your responsibility to track down the real author. You can read more here about the dangers of writing “Anon”. The only time you can ever write “Anon” is when a respected, established source like The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has declared it anonymous.

I’ve rewritten it in my own words; is that okay?

No. If anything, it’s even more dangerous, because it starts to cross the line into plagiarism. Paraphrasing someone else’s ideas doesn’t change anything: they’re still someone else’s ideas. This is especially true if you copy their structure, as well. Compare this paragraph with the next paragraph.

Actually, it’s more of a risk as it could look like you’re plagiarising someone else. If you put someone else’s thoughts in your own words, they’re still the other person’s thoughts, even more so if you do it in the same order. Check out the similarity between this paragraph and the one above.

Formal copyright law (in the UK, at least) says that ideas can’t be protected, but be very careful with this: using the ideas could easily still count as plagiarism. It’s better to test this by getting permission than by going to court.

It’s alright if I say “in accordance with fair use principles”.

No, it isn’t – not unless it actually fits fair-use principles. This confusion seems to come from a rash of Facebook pages brazenly treading all over copyright (especially of images) and declaring that it’s “fair use”. It’s usually not. Fair use is very specific and usually relates to news reports, a review of something, formal study, or accidental inclusion (the UK Copyright Service gives the example of a holiday movie which accidentally includes a copyright song playing the background). If you’re writing a book on your expertise, none of these apply.

So what should I do?

Follow these tips to keep yourself out of legal trouble and your reputation clean:

  • RECORDS: Keep a record of all the sources you use as you write, so you don’t accidentally plagiarise someone else’s ideas.
  • CREDIT: Every time you use someone else’s thoughts, ideas, or models, say in your writing whose work you’re using
  • FIND OUT: Check if the author’s alive. If they’re dead, how long ago did they die? Is the work still in copyright?
  • PERMISSION: Get permission for everything you use. Usually, the author’s agent or publisher will deal with their copyright for them. Allow plenty of time for this: some places have a rapid turnaround, but others can take months.

You can find out more about copyright in your country here:

If you want a mentor to guide you through the writing and publishing process, look at the Springboard Your Book programme and Book coaching.

2 thoughts on “Are you in breach of copyright?

  1. I found out (the hard way) that the same thing applies to the drawings I do for each of my blog posts. I used other people’s photographs and wrongly assumed that the drawing I made from them became mine (since I was the artist of the drawing). Not so! I can use my drawings on my blog, but I can’t use them for any commercial venture without “Derivative Permission” (and it is next to impossible to find the original photographer to ask for permission since so many websites don’t bother to credit the photographer). So now, I am much more careful about where I get photographs to draw from (derivative permission or no go!). Thanks for the reminder that I need to be careful with my words too.

  2. Pingback: 5 science facts that self-help writers get wrong | Thought Leader Books: The Blog

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