Information and Advice
Copyright, Plagiarism, Infringement & Quotation
Copyright is one of the literary world’s most mis–spelt words. It deals with the right of copying, not the wright of making nor the write of recording the information, of getting it down.
Let’s dispose of an urban myth - the ever-present imitator who steals your ideas as soon as you scribble them down. We’re always coming up against this one, the sob-story of an unprotected work filched from under the writer’s nose. Usually the work has been sent in somewhere - to a magazine or maybe a radio programme - and nothing has been heard. Later the same piece, changed slightly, resurfaces with another’s name on it and the original author gets no acknowledgement at all. In our experience this just doesn’t happen. When we investigate these stories - and we’ve done this more than once - the facts melt, the magazines dissolve. “Ah, so it wasn’t the South East Review he sent it to, must have been elsewhere.” And that’s the other thing, we notice that it is never the person telling the story that it’s happened to either - in the tradition of myth making it’s always someone else.
Actually plagiarism is a matter of degree. Ben Johnson tells us that one of the requisites of the poet is to imitate, “to be able to convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use”. But it does depend on how far you go. In the 1960s the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid published a poem entitled “Perfect” about a gull’s wing. Its text was almost word for word taken from a short story by Welsh author Glyn Jones. In the ensuing correspondence published by the TLS MacDiarmid claimed to have a photographic memory and to have used the Glyn Jones lines unconsciously. Not that this admission made any difference. You can still find the piece today in MacDiarmid’s collected works.
Generally speaking, however, writing is free of such copyright infringers. There are borrowers, certainly, but the wholesale misappropriation of another’s work and the passing off of that as your own is rare. With the exception of schoolchildren (who appear regularly to enter the great works of literary history in local poetry competitions) writing is usually written by the person whose name is attached. In the present era the concept of total and exclusive originality has loomed in importance. Earlier times accepted it as normal that themes, ideas, and images would be rewritten and reused by succeeding generations of writers. Today there is something about mass literacy and mass communication which makes it essential for any creative work to be yours and yours alone.
Copyright and how it is established
The biggest myth about copyright in Britain is that you have to do something to obtain it, to register it as your own. This misunderstanding comes in part from American practice, where at one time copyright could only be obtained through a registration procedure, and from our own Copyright Act of 1911 which requires publishers to deliver copies of all new books to certain deposit libraries, free of charge. It is the practice of some nervous individuals to send a copy of their poetry by registered mail to a bank where it is kept, unopened, in the strong-room or even to pay a hefty fee to have the work kept at their Solicitors. This establishes the form of the work as theirs beyond a doubt, as well as recording the date of composition. It is possibly a useful device in any future infringement action. It is worth doing only if the author feels especially at risk but it is not necessary at all.
Copyright obtains at the moment the work is created. Record your words “in any appropriate medium” and you have established the form of the work. The copyright is yours. Half-finish the piece and that part is copyright. Your notes are copyright, your scratched image on the back of a beer-mat is copyright. And you need do nothing to claim that right at all.
In Britain copyright law provides for the protection of an author’s writing but not the ideas or images or the sense contained in that work. Copyright covers the tangible form of the words, rather than what they say. This protection is yours until you die, when it passes to your estate and then persists for a further seventy years before emerging into the public domain. This means that your work cannot be used without your permission for a considerable time. If there is still an interest more than half a century after you’ve gone then the nation deserves it for nothing. You’ll be part the culture by then.
Copyright law also establishes what are known as moral rights. Here, so long as you make the appropriate assertion, you are entitled always to be identified as the author of your works. In other words they cannot appear anywhere in print without having your name attached. Asserting these rights is simple. In your published work add “the moral right of the author has been asserted” on the verso (that’s the back) of the title-page at the start of the book.
What can you do with your copyright? If you think of it as property, which is how the law regards it, then you can sell it, rent it, lend it or even give it away. If you submit a poem to a magazine and the work is used the copyright usually stays with you. Even if you have been paid, the copyright remains yours. The magazine is merely renting. Only if you actually sign your copyright away can it pass to someone else. Generally speaking this does not happen with magazines and the rule would be not to sign anything - unless of course you’re being offered plenty of cash.
Magazines and anthologies often display a copyright symbol © thus:
© 2007 Gwasg Twm Morys
Don’t be alarmed, This symbol isn’t necessary, as we’ve pointed out, to gain protection under UK law but it will help gain protection abroad, particularly in America where copyright conventions are different. Secondly it is only the selection of the anthology or magazine - the choice of works and the order in which they run - which is being claimed. Copyright remains with the copyright holders - be they the authors or some other individual, usual a publisher, to whom the rights have been sold.
For authors what are important are the rights to your published work and the permissions required to quote from it or to use it again. Once published it may well be that your work will be selected for anthology appearance, for use on the stage in some presentation, be broadcast, or even used as part of a critical treatise or text book. In most cases permission will be required from the copyright holder for the work’s use and invariably means the payment of a fee. They’ll write to you, or to your publisher, and make an offer. If your publisher has any expertise in this field follow their lead otherwise you’ll have to decide for yourself if what you are being offered is fair payment or not. However, the Copyright Acts do allow certain circumstances where permission for use of copyright material need not be sought. This practice is known as fair dealing and the circumstances are roughly as follows:
a) For use in research and private study
b) For use in criticism and review
c) For the recording of current events
d) Reproduction for a judicial proceeding
e) Reading aloud in public, (but not broadcast, or recorded)
f) Inclusion, under certain circumstances, of a short extract in a collection intended for schools
Sufficient acknowledgement must always be made. A “less than substantial” part of a work may also be used without permission in certain other circumstances. Unfortunately Copyright law does not define what is meant by “substantial”. Further advice on this matter can be found by consulting the Society of Author’s pamphlet Quick Guide to Permissions. The Society of Authors also carry useful information along with sample charges on their web site here.
What can you do if you feel that the law has been broken? What remedies are there for infringement? What should you do? First make sure of your facts. Copyright law, as we’ve pointed out, can be a minefield for the uninitiated. Read up, if you think you have a case. Check Amanda L. Michael’s succinct contribution “British Copyright Law” in the Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook (A&C Black) and then the broader picture painted in past editions of Barry Turner’s The Writer’s Handbook (Macmillan). If you think you might have a case consult your solicitor.
This essay is adapted from Peter Finch’s How To Publish Your Poetry (Allison & Busby).