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Dear Asked and Answered,
Every night I lie awake worrying that someone will steal my manuscript, get it published, make the Bestsellers’ List, and become a literary icon. As if that weren’t enough, what if my sister, Mary Anne, sues me for libel, just because my vampire/witch protagonist, Marianne, slightly resembles her? I don’t have a lot of money, but I desperately need to talk to a lawyer who can answer my literary-related questions. How can I find one?
-Sleepless in Salado
Many writers worry about getting into legal hot water. Maybe I can ease your mind. I’m happy to report, there’s a lot of help out there for artists of all creative disciplines.
Let me start by reassuring you theft of intellectual property before publishing happens very rarely. Reputable agents and publishers depend on their reputations as much as discovering the next Hemingway. They aren’t anxious to risk their careers by stealing the manuscript of an unknown writer.
That being said, if you still see literary highwaymen skulking behind every bush, you can go ahead and copyright the “best version” of your manuscript. You can fill out the forms for the Library of Congress, available online, and pay their fee which ranges from $35-$55. One main advantage of having this on file is you can recoup court costs if you sue someone for plagiarism and win.
The government’s copyright website, provides a wealth of information, FAQ’s, and downloadable publications, as well as information on filing a copyright yourself.
There are also many books that explain the legal ins and outs encountered by writers. For instance, The Writer’s Legal Companion by Brad Bunnin and Peter Beren covers general writing issues, such as contracts, libel and slander, magazine publishing, income tax considerations for freelance writers and copyright legalities. The Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook by Helen Sedwick covers business issues specific to writers who self-publish. Check out Amazon, or better yet, visit your local bookstore for a wide selection of books on the business of writing.
For more direct help, if you qualify (must be an artist and have a combined household income of $50k or less), you can join TALA, Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts. Their annual membership fee of $75 entitles you to receive accounting and legal services from TALA for an entire year.
If you’re in Austin, TALA also hosts free workshops from time to time in conjunction with UT Law Students for the Arts. Check their website for events scheduled. (If you’re not in Austin, do some searching for similar organizations in your area; and when you find them, send us a note & we’ll add them to the Writers’ League’s resources page!)
If you don’t qualify for TALA, you may opt for a legal plan. LegalZoom offers several plans, at very reasonable prices, which entitle you to telephone or email consultations with a lawyer familiar with the laws in your state, as well as federal laws. Services of particular interest to writers include contract review, negotiation, and copyright registration. Some services are also offered by LegalShield.
Finally, be sure to check out the Writers League’s Resources section. There are several helpful legal services listed there.
The “Poor Man’s Copyright,” or mailing yourself a copy of the work you want protected and keeping it unopened, is more urban legend than fact. See links below.
If I’ve left out a source that you really like, please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time!
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