Sunday, 27 May 2018

Indie Publishing and Copyright

Indie Publishing and Copyright

I took a social media course a while back (early 2017), and thought I should review my notes and perhaps write a quick blog about it.    The course was through the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension, but my blog doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the university.  Obviously, I may have misinterpreted something in the course, or could have taken some sloppy notes, so think of this blog as an intro to the subject, but certainly not definitive.  Also, it goes without saying that this blog doesn’t constitute legal advice or anything like that. 

The subject has obvious relevance for those of us in the Indie Publishing and Writing game.  We wonder just what constitutes too much borrowing, where the line between creativity and appropriation is, what images are in the public domain, and so forth.  Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is “it’s complicated”, but more on that below.

Note also, that this is in some ways a very dynamic area, and in other ways a very conservative area.  So, it is important to check the current state of law and practice at any given time, if you think it may be relevant to your creative endeavors.

Some Fundamental Principles of Copyright

  • Copyright is codified in law, which is generally reviewed every 5 years.
  • Copyright is meant to protect the creator – the creator’s claim to priority and value that can arise from the creation.
  • Your can’t copyright intangibles, such as titles, names, ideas and principles of nature.
  •   -  However, trademark law can be applied to signs and symbols.
  •   -   Patents can be granted, as to how the principles of nature are specifically used by people (e.g. inventions).

The Business of Copyright

  • One can use copyrighted work, but must seek permission from the creator first.  That permission might require financial compensation, or it might just be a matter of giving intellectual credit where it is due.
  • Copyright is actually automatic upon production of a creative work, but it makes sense to explicitly assert your right (e.g. with a statement like “Copyright (Your Name) (Year)” somewhere on the work, typically the front matter in a book).
  • The term of copyright may vary from country to country and may be changed by statute from time to time.  In Canada, the current term for most works is 50 years past the life of the creator, 70 years for music.  The terms tend to be longer in the United States.
  • The term for any given work can depend on the law at the time that the work was created, so it is hard to come up with a hard and fast general calculation.
  • After copyright has expired, the work goes into “the public domain”.  At that point anyone can reproduce it, with no compensation necessary (though the original creator should be given a mention).
  • The copyright for work that you do on commission (for hire or “call for submission”) can vary.  It is best if a contract for such work is explicit about the matter of copyright.

Protecting Your Copyright

  • One practical piece of advice is, “don’t put it on-line”.
  • If you are publishing on Amazon or similar platforms, consider whether you should use Digital Rights Management.
  • Another is “assert your copyright explicitly”.
  • Don’t be surprised of your stuff is used by someone else.
  • You have to be vigilant about protecting your interests.  Ultimately, that might include filing a complaint, or issuing a take-down notice, if you are sufficiently motivated.

Implications for Social Media

  • Facebook and Twitter claim rights to your stuff that you post.
  • The image is still yours, but the social media company claims to have rights as well.
  • Facebook shares are especially tricky, when it comes to ownership.

Fair Use or Fair Dealing

  • This can include such uses as educational or research-based.
  • It can depend on whether the purpose is commercial or not.
  •        <---- Commercial ----------------------------Non-commercial --- >
  •        < ----(less open or “fair”) ---------------(more open or “fair”) --- >
  • It can also depend on whether or not the information is considered confidential.
  •      <---- Confidential ----------------------------Non-confidential --- >
  •      < ----(less open or “fair”) ---------------(more open or “fair”) --- >
  • The amount of the work being copied is relevant.  Generally, the less of the work being copied or quoted, the better.  Obviously, though, that might depend on the purpose of the copying (e.g. a quotation in an academic paper versus a citation in some other non-academic publication).  In any case, it is good practice to only quote as much of a copyrighted work as you really need, to get your point across.
  • In general, satire, parody, and transformations of a copyrighted work are allowed.  But, in any of these uses the degree of change is important, with more transformation or more obvious parody/satire being more likely to come under “fair use”.
  • Some entities are much more open than others.  Your city government might be very tolerant of people copying material from their website, while Disney corporation will most certainly not be tolerant of such things.

Transformations, Remixes, Mashups

  • There have been changes to copyright law, which were intended to be provide protection to creators from illegal copying, yet not inhibit sharing and collaboration, especially in the internet age.
  • Transformations, re-mixes, mashups are permitted, but the work must really by transformed.
  • There must not be a strong resemblance to the original work, after the transformation.
  •   - It is still a good idea to seek permission of any works that you use as a basis for a transformation.
  •   - You should assert your ownership and copyright to the transformed work. 
  • Personal use of copyrighted material is generally permitted, if there is no commercial intentions to such use (you don’t try to make money off the work).
  • For example, you can generally make a copy of something that you purchased, if it is just to play it on another machine for your own personal use.

Internet Memes

·       “Memes” are a relatively new internet development of these ideas.  These are images that are re-purposed by someone, often for satirical purposes, with accompanying text.
·       A classic example is Pepe the Frog – the cartoon frog who “feels good, man”.
o   It began as an image on a cartoon by Matt Furie (Boys Club).
o   The image was later appropriated by the internet discussion site Reddit, and became a common political meme during the U.S. election.
o   Generally, it became associated with Donald Trump, and even was disparaged by Hillary Clinton during the campaign, which just enhanced the power of the meme, for many people.
o   The original frog was spun off into a multiplicity of sub-memes, such as Sad Pepe, Smug Pepe and Angry Pepe.

o   The original creator wasn’t happy about all this, but there wasn’t much that he could do about most of the Pepe appropriations, as their use was wide-spread, non-commercial,  transformative and satirical.  At any rate, notwithstanding taked-down orders, there are still thousands of variations of the Pepe meme on the internet (on google images, for example).

Alternatives to Conventional Copyright

·       Probably the main alternative to usual copyright procedures is Creative Commons.
o   A creator can register there, and allow various levels of permission to others, with various restrictions.
o   Users of works registered in this way need to give attribution to the creator.
o   The use should be non-commercial.
o   There may be a stipulation that the user can’t “build upon it” (i.e. change or transform it).
o For more information,see
·       There are also sites with artwork that can be copied freely (list is not comprehensive):


o   Pixabay

o   Pexels
o  (reverse image search)

One way to be sure that you are on the right side of copyright law, is to have an artist do your covers (for money, or for free if you are lucky).  Below are a couple of examples, that we used for some of our books or stories.

Kati 1 - Escape from the Drowned Planet

Kati and Mikal's escape from the alien slaver Gorsh.
Amazon U.S.:
Amazon U.K.:

The cover art is by artist Leona Olausen.

Miranda and the Christmas Elf

The story is set in the Christmas splendor of a Northern Ontario rural lakeside community.  It features Helena Puumala's wonderful way with emotionally rich, yet optimistic family drama.

The cover is by artist Alexandria Nike Gardener, who has also done children’s’ book illustrations for several titles, as well as other amazing artwork.  Her webpage is linked below.  Check out "Maddie Goes to London".