11 June 2012

How to deal with the Big C

This post is actually serious, so don't be shocked or, worse, disappointed. As I dream of myself in authorial tweed, it may come as no surprise to fellow authors that we share a fundamental question that stands at the core of our art: authorship.
Just how do we, should the need arise, prove we are the authors of all we scribble? And how might we avoid that need arising?

When I was a teenager, I sent out some sci-fi stories to magazines. No luck. I sent a longer story to a book publisher in town, same result. Nobody asked me if I was the author; it was assumed that if I wanted to claim such poor, immature writing, then I could have it. Adults (teachers, etc.) advised me to mail a copy of the manuscript to myself, using registered mail, and never ever open it. The date stamp would serve as proof that, as of that date, I and the manuscript inside were related. I was covered if someone later tried to copy it.

I have several envelopes with manuscripts inside in a trunk in the basement. Nobody has asked for proof of authorship in all of these many years. Instead, the digital age has virtually eliminated that traditional paper method. I suppose one could mail a CD containing the file(s) of the book; same idea but with less postage than a ream of paper. In the digital world, however, we have bits and bytes instead of sheets of paper. How does one mail data to one's self and have a third party verify the date and identity?

More recently I've dealt with authorship in the classroom as my students and I discuss the ramifications of copyright. My perennial purpose is twofold: to get my students...

1) to understand that somebody created what they may want to use, i.e., cite in their research paper, and
2) to use the proper citation methods to give credit to those who create the content.

Not to be cynical (all right, it's unavoidable), but my students do not seemed to have any concept of online content having ownership--much less any content from a print source (or audio, video, etc.). In my students' view of the world, so it seems, people just make stuff because they, the content creators, just like to do it and then they offer it for everyone to enjoy. (Then how do they buy food? I ask. Silence.) If it can be downloaded for free, it is free.

In a good semester, I can get a few of them to swing to my side and accept that content providers need to be paid and should be paid for what they create. The very least we can do is give them credit in the school papers we write. As an academic, I'm used to the free exchange of ideas and of professional journals that publish articles where our ideas are shared. We include appropriate citation of sources we quote and that is considered enough. My own scholarly works have been cited in other scholars' papers--without payment.

However, as I stepped out of my writing closet and offered up a few of my novels for publication with independent presses, I found myself stumbling through the morass of copyright issues in the real world.

First, I made a so-called book trailer. I used the music that had inspired me to write the book. I took images from the internet, from my own travel photos, and did some photoshopping to the limit of my skills. It was a workable video that hinted at the story, set the mood, hopefully intrigued a viewer enough to buy the book.

Then reality set in. YouTube informed me that I did not own the rights to the music and questioned my rights with regard to the images I used. While I had previously made a "music video" for fun back in my college days and posted it, this book trailer was something being used to sell a product. If I were using someone else's work to sell a work of my own, something needed to be done to make everything kosher. (Hey, I went to the same university the YouTube founder did; doesn't that count for something?)

So I added an enthusiastic endorsement (a plug) for the artist, praising the music and providing a link to where the album could be purchased. That seemed fair. But did that cover me legally? Apparently not.

Then came the issue of the book cover. Same deal: some of my own images, some from the internet, and photoshopping. I became aware of how necessary it was to purchase royalty-free images and not just grab one available online. Fortunately, my publisher had a staff artist who had access to all kinds of images and the cover was created. Later, however, I faced new issues when the artist did not give me the copyright to the cover art. I was, therefore, forced to have a new cover created by a new artist who did award me copyright to the artwork. I have learned also about some of my fellow authors who have had their own copyright issues with regard to even the concept idea for a cover! Some of us joked that soon we will have to pay for every adverb we use in a story.

Where does it end? We want to do right by our creative colleagues. Unfortunately, I think it is only beginning. The recent legislation regarding online piracy and copyright laws is still in play and it is anyone's guess how it all may end. (You can check one report here and at many other webpages.) When I was in college long ago, the local Kinko's informed students they could only copy up to 10% of a book or one full chapter. Now, with everything digital and so easy to copy, "photoshop", alter enough to claim it's now your original, mix with other material and claim someone else's work as your own--every creator of original content needs to be on guard.

How do you prove authorship in our digital age?

Recently I began the process of uploading my novel to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing service, a process some of my colleagues had done quite easily and quickly. I had some glitches, most notably forgetting to designate myself as the author even though I put my name first in the information listing. Because of that, or perhaps simply by coincidence, I received an email asking (the tone was, to me, "demanding") for documentation that I was the author and that I had the right to publish it. The teenager inside me shouted vehemently "I wrote it more than ten years ago; I know I am the author!" And the wind echoed his sorrow....

Short of a note from my mother or a letter from the English professor who taught the creative writing class where I wrote the original version years ago, what could I do? I had not mailed a copy of the manuscript to myself since it was created and edited on a computer. The files still existed, transferred over from computer to computer. Then a brainstorm hit me, tore through my anger, and gave me hope! I had the digital file of the earliest version of the story that subsequently developed into the novel. Right-clicking the file in Windows Explorer produced a dialog box that revealed all kinds of pertinent information: the date created and modified, the name of the author (also noting the author's named computer as the place of origin), and so on. I passed on this file to the folks at KDP--and, as of this blog posting three days hence (including a weekend), I have not heard from them or seen any change to my account or book page. [Update: I was granted publication with no further obstacles.]

So I asked my question on Facebook, where several of my writer colleagues happen to also be attorneys. Lots of great advice...I think. Without prompting by me, a few repeated the idea of mailing yourself a manuscript. Others challenged that method, saying it would not hold up in a court. Others stated that it only established association of your name with that item on a certain date, not that you created it. Some put forth the conflicting rules of proof between criminal and civil cases; the burden of proof is on you, the author, to prove you are the author if someone else says you are not. There is no "innocent (or I'm the author) until proven guilty (I'm not the author)".

Furthermore, it does seem popular to continue the practice of plunking the big C on your manuscript (C) to stake your claim, regardless of the common notion that it is copyrighted from the moment you create it.

A few advised sending the manuscript to the copyright office, Library of Congress, etc. (http://www.copyright.gov/) and pay the fee to have it chiseled in stone. I might edit way too much for that kind of stoning, however. That's probably why I've waited: I just want to get a really good final copy ready before I send it to the government. "Register EVERYTHING," one colleague declared. Seems the catch-all solution.

(I thank those who contributed to the Facebook thread, but to avoid copyright problems I must paraphrase you; feel free to claim your ideas in the comment section. Or add new ideas. It benefits all of us to nail down the rules once and for all...until they're changed.)

At the end of the day, I had to throw in a wrench to my question thread. As writers, we are always overhearing snatches of conversation, reading something about something somewhere and later forgetting where, seeing something in a film or on TV, paying attention (or not) to relatives who tell us about some adventure they had down at the DMV or at Scout camp--lots of material that we transform into something fictitious. Seldom do we really know where any particular sentence or idea comes from when we are in the throes of writing the story. That's our job, of course: to fictionalize the real. But can we possibly be expected to cite every "borrowing" or drop a few coins to compensate a fellow creator for using a word or two?

I cannot help but recall the lawsuit filed in which The Chiffons claimed that George Harrison borrowed part of their song "He's So Fine" for his "My Sweet Lord"--a three note phrase, barely a motif in musical terminology. How often can two musicians who know nothing of each other's work happen to come up with a three note combination completely at random? With that question in mind, I created a post-apocalyptic musical in 1981 which I titled THE LAST SONG (Yes, Nicholas Sparks borrowed the title from my novel! Lawsuit is pending.). It's a tragicomic novella in which the last mathematically possible combination of notes is discovered. It remains unpublished. I long ago learned that titles cannot be copyrighted, thank goodness!

And now, having ranted for long enough, I return to my latest novel, GONE WITH THE WIND, hopefully coming out sometime next year. It's about a girl on a farm who meets a city man and falls in love. There's a war but they get back together. They fight a lot so the man eventually leaves. I have a great line for him to say when he walks out the door: "Frankly, my dear, I don't really care!" Do you think that will sell?

I welcome you--all of you, any of you, and your knowledgeable friends--to add your two cents' worth to this discussion. Explain to me, correct me, advise me. It benefits us all. Thanks!

Ooo! Look at this! A real Copyright notice! A Big C! Ain't it cool? 
And all images in this post were snatched from Google Images, except the movie poster, which is from Wikipedia.

(C) Copyright 2010-2012 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. Oh, I hope I don't have similar trials when I attempt to upload my own book this week, Stephen!

  2. Eventually everything worked out with KDP and we are dating again! Good luck, but if I can do it, you can do it better.