Business, Indie Publishing, Legal

Selling Your Licensing Rights: What Authors Should Know

 

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In the past few months, the story of Harper Lee and the controversy surrounding her sequel to “To Kill a Mocking Bird” had authors talking again about how it seems everyone is on a mission to rip authors off.   In fact, things have gotten so bad that the Author’s Guild has started a new campaign for what they’re calling a fair  contract initiative which they hope will help authors achieve a fair and balanced return for their work.

Even though I’m not a big fan of the Authors Guild, I do believe this is a worthy cause.  So in today’s post, I’m going to lay out several examples of authors signing unfair contracts as well as authors getting their rights stolen from them.  I also discuss how one New York publisher tried to take digital ebook rights from authors before they were even invented!

You Learn Something New Every Day

Two weeks ago, on the Red River Writer’s podcast, I was asked, what kind of advice I’d give to new authors and I answered, “Authors need to know what’s normal in a publishing contract. These days publishers are taking almost all an author’s licensing rights including movie rights. Publishers don’t even sell books anymore, are we expected to believe they’re shopping our movie rights to Hollywood?” Our guest, Bennet Pomerantz, an author, book reviewer and radio host extraordinaire, responded that it might be because Amazon has their own movie studio. The host and I were shocked, I hadn’t even heard of the Amazon movie studio!

So I did my research and learned yes, Amazon did open a movie studio in 2010.  Bennet also mentioned that Netflix has a studio of its own and they’re experimenting with producing their own movies.  It all made sense now, and publishers being publishers, figured, why not take these rights before someone else (the author) makes money from it?  This is why it’s so important for authors to know what exactly they are selling in a publishing contract.

Before I go further, let me explain the types of licensing rights authors usually exploit:
1. Print
2. Digital (ebooks, apps, video games, etc.)
3. Audio
4. Translation
5. Movie
6. Television
7. Merchandise
8. Franchise: (allowing other writers to use characters from your books as long as they give a percentage of the royalties)

The list does go on, but these are the more common rights that authors sell.  In the case of a traditional publisher, they are generally given the right to publish a book in print, ebook or audio form however, they do not own the copyright to your book.  You are just giving them permission (license) to publish and distribute your book.

Super What?

Most experienced publishing professionals will tell you that you should never EVER sign over all your book’s licensing rights. This is what the creators of Superman did in 1938, when they sold the rights to their company (which created the comic character) for only $150.  They also had  some sort of a work for hire deal with DC Comics that got complicated later on.  As we all know, the comic book character went on to become a global multi-million dollar phenomenon but the creators only got a tiny fraction of what DC Comics got.  Over the years, the creators had to sue on multiple occasions just to get access to royalties due them.  The latest lawsuit occurred in 2008, when Jerry Siegel’s estate sued over the Superboy character.

Back to the Harper Lee Story…

Let’s not forget the case of Harper Lee, (author of To Kill a Mocking Bird) who was duped into signing over copyrights to a former agent. For those who don’t know, Ms. Lee is living in a nursing home and has been nearly blind and deaf for years. However, that didn’t stop her agent who went over to the nursing home and got her to sign a contract giving him the rights to her book! P.S. a judge later declared the contract was null and void then ordered the agent to give back the money he took.

It explains the recent outcry when it was announced that there would be a sequel to her bestseller.  Many believe she is being taken advantage of yet again, while Harper Lee herself has publicly denied being duped into anything.  Later an investigation was launched by authorities who found no signs of fraud.

I guess the moral of this story is not even bestseller status protects you from the problems in the publishing world.

All Things Not Yet Seen

In 2009, Random House sent a letter to several authors when they noticed them selling the digital rights of their books to other companies. They were told in a memo they were in violation of their contract.  Now keep in mind, some of these contracts were 20+ years old, and ebooks as we know them, didn’t exist back then. Later on, a tiny clause was found in some contracts that specified RH could publish manuscripts in book form. Agents and authors cried foul but RH stood by its reasoning and proceeded to take several companies to court.

So how do you keep yourself out this kind of legal nightmare?  That’s easy, you educated yourself. There are several websites and books that can help authors decipher contracts, here are a few resources to look at:

Books:

Websites:

P.S. I’m not affiliate with any of the products or services mentioned.

As you can see, there was never a golden era in publishing, where authors were pampered and protected.  Things have always been tough in this business however today, it’s different.  The industry as we know it is fading away and many people are getting desperate especially, those within the ivory towers.  The only way to protect ourselves and fight back is to educate ourselves.  It’s hard to con an author who knows their legal rights and an educated author is what the industry fears.

*Stepping off soapbox*

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Business, Indie Publishing, Legal, Publishing

What To Do When Someone Pirates Your Ebook: Part 2

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I had no intention of making a part 2 to my last post but when the Becca Mills story hit the internet, I felt I needed to go further with the series.  For those who don’t know, Becca Mills is an indie author, whose book was removed from Amazon by a false DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) compliant.  As the drama unfolded, many indie authors, including myself, learned several surprising things about the role retailers play in copyright disputes. Because what seemed to be an easy open and shut case turned into weeks of back and forth between the author, Amazon and a con-artist pretending to be the author.  Now here’s the kicker, even though the author had a registered copyright, Amazon would not get involved in a third party dispute.

Long story short, Ms. Mills was finally able to get her book out of KDP purgatory by filing her own counter DMCA and by shooting off an email to Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. Though the odds of this happening again are astronomical, I still think we indie authors need to know our legal rights in the event someone tries to hijack our work.

*Disclaimer* I am in no way a lawyer, and cannot give you legal advice.  I can only educate you about the resources and institutions that are available to you.

Lesson 1: Don’t Go Looking For Prince Charming To Rescue You

According to Amazon’s own policy once a DMCA compliant has been filed, they must legally take the book down from their site.  I recently emailed KDP and asked about the Becca Mills case and here’s their response:

KDP Response to Becca Mills Story
Click to enlarge

As you can see, it is up to the real copyright owner to fight the con-artist.  In Becca Mills’ case things were resolved but what if one day, an imposter decides to press their luck and comes after your copyright? Would you know how to fight back?

Why File a Counter DMCA?

On most retail sites, once a DMCA complaint is filed, the identity of the person stealing the work along with their contact info is revealed in good faith. This way all the cards are on the table, and once you have this person’s identity, you can give it to the authorities which leads me to my next point…

Filing Criminal Charges

What if a thief ignores you and continues to make your life hell? In Becca Mills’ story, the person went to both Amazon and Smashwords to get her work taken down.  If this continues to happen, you’ll have no option but to file criminal charges against them. In most parts of the world, law enforcement institutions have a fraud and cyber crimes department so it would be wise to start there.

  • In the U.S. you can go to the FBI
  • In Canada the RCMP
  • In the U.K. Gov.uk

But what if you want restitution? In that case, you’ll need to take it to the next level and file a civil suit in court.

You Have A Copyright, Don’t You?

As I stated in part one of this series, you’ll NEED a government copyright. There is no way around this, because according to the U.S. Copyright office: “Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration is necessary for works of U.S. origins.” You can read the entire PDF file here.

Another reason why it’s smart to get a copyright is because in the U.S., if you file your copyright before publishing, you can get more in damages and even recoup your legal fees. Yes, you can get a copyright after your book has been officially published in the U.S., but you won’t be able to claim the full legal benefits of a copyright owner who registered before they published.

Lesson 2: Authors & Journalists Get Sued All The Time

It’s not uncommon for a mega bestselling author to get sued by someone claiming to be the genuine author of a given work. For example, J.K. Rowling has been sued multiple times over her Harry Potter books.  However, none of the plaintiffs have been successful in proving J.K. Rowling ripped them off.  Nevertheless, there are thousands of copyright infringement cases filed in the U.S. every year.

Most major publishing companies have liability insurance which protects them against libel as well as copyright infringement lawsuits.  Unfortunately, most indie authors cannot afford it because the premiums are often very high.  Luckily though, there are guilds and organization that offer protection or legal advice with membership.

Organizations that offer liability insurance or legal information:

In Closing

The purpose of this article is to inform authors that they don’t have to go it alone when defending their copyright.  Help is out there, all we need to do is reach out and ask.  And hopefully, the Becca Mills story will inspire us to take charge of our publishing businesses whether that means getting liability insurance or registering our copyright with a government office.  We indies need to know what’s available to us and how to proceed in the event of a lawsuit or copyright hijacking, because as you can see, the waters are treacherous in the publishing world.

*Stepping off soapbox*

Update: According to Becca Mills, once an author sends a counter DMCA their policy is not inclined to restore a book.  And she’s right, I reread Amazon’s KDP Terms Of Service and it doesn’t mention counter DMCAs or who to contact in the event a false complaint.  I’m left to assume that they take this on a case by case basis but nonetheless, author beware!

Business, Legal, Writing Business

What To Do When Someone Pirates Your Ebook

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In the past couple of months, I’ve noticed an uptick in book pirating complaints from indie authors.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this trend is going  to subside anytime soon.  Why, you ask? Because according to Author Earnings, self-published books make up almost 33% of all ebooks sold on Amazon. So if we indies command a piece of the market that large, we also share the attention of book pirates. This is a problem many authors are going to have to face soon or later, so let’s educate ourselves on the various ways our work can be stolen and what to do about it.

Types of Pirating

There are several ways pirates make money from stolen work, some create websites where they sell books directly, and at these sites there can be anywhere from hundreds, to thousands, of stolen books. Oh yeah, and here’s the kicker: some of the more sophisticated sites not only make money with books but also with ads and affiliate links. Welcome to 21st century publishing!

The second type of pirate will upload your book to a retailer like Amazon and pretend to be you. Often they will change the book’s cover and create some fake pseudonym. They’ve even been known to take public domain works and charge for them.

Then there’s the third kind of pirate that does a combination of both, selling direct as well as selling stolen books on sites like Amazon.

So how do we deal with this?

Step 1: Get Your Book Protected

Before you even click the publish button, you need to register your work with your government’s copyright office. The copyright office will assign your book with a number which links you to your work. This number will be important if someone asks you to prove you are the owner of the intellectual property (book) in question. Which leads me to my next point…

Step 2: Start Sending DMCA Take Down Notices

In 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was enacted in the U.S. to protect digital properties from being stolen and distributed. This means if someone takes any material that is copyrighted elsewhere, the owner of that property can take legal action against them.

In compliance with the law, many sites like Amazon, Google and Barnes & Noble all have departments that deal with DMCA complaints. However before you start there, try contacting the pirate site yourself  (if possible) and give them ample time to respond to your complaint. Be professional, and let them know you are the owner of the intellectual property they’re selling and would like it removed from their site.  Some authors have even gone as far as to send invoices to pirate sites, so feel free to charge them whatever you think is reasonable. 🙂  But if they do not respond, you’ll need to move on to step three…

Step 3: Start Reporting Them To Their Web Host

If this is a website that has stolen your work, your best bet would be to find the host of that particular site and report them. You do that by going to Who Is Hosting This and typing in the pirate site’s URL into the search engine.  Most hosting companies like GoDaddy and BlueHost will happily take down the site if they get enough complaints.  It goes without saying, that it would help, if you teamed up with a few authors on this one and barraged them with complaints. But what if that doesn’t help?…

Step 4: Make Them Invisible

You can report a pirate site that has stolen material to most of the popular search engines. Many sites like Google, will either take away their ranking, or remove them completely from their search engines. Below are some links to get you started:

Step 5: Report Them To The Retailers

This step is for the pirate who steals your book and posted it to an online retailer’s site. Most retailers have official channels that need to be used in order to get a timely response, so be careful to follow the instructions about filing a DMCA.

Trolling The Pirates: Social Media Blasts

I’ve seen journalists and freelance writers have success calling out the people who steal their work on the thief’s own social media page. Yes, there are pirate sites with Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts! Again, just one complaint may not be enough, you may have to join forces with others to get attention.  Think about it, internet trolls, often attack in groups, because it’s effective. However unlike them, you can’t start any flaming wars, just call them out and request they take down your book. If it’s a social media site like Facebook or Google, you can post your entire DMCA complaint right there on the page or in the comments section of their post.

Well there you go, just a few examples of what you can do to fight back against a pirate. Though you can’t put everyone out of business, you can do some damage.  It’s well known that most of the major publishing companies don’t bother with pirates unless, they’re making lots of money.  They can afford to do that however, we indies can’t afford to let that kind of money fly out the window. Granted, I don’t believe you should waste your life hunting pirates but when something comes to your attention, you should at least try to deal with it. You might not win, but hey, at least you put up a fight.

*Stepping down from soapbox*

Business, Legal, Publishing, Writing Business

Screwed by Book Packagers?

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This past week, I read a post about the writer of The Vampire Diaries who was unceremoniously fired from her own series.  At least that was the story the author told.  You see, the author was hired by a company called, Alloy Entertainment, a book packager and television production company.  They had an idea for a television series and she was contracted to flesh it out.  But let’s just say things got complicated, very complicated.

This author’s tenure was never carved into stone or in ink for that matter, she was a ghost writer.  She was never an employee nor did she hold the rights to the series but she was passionate about the project and was even given credit for the series, a rare event for a ghost writer.  But there were major creative differences which ultimately led to her being fired by Alloy.

However before we judge, Alloy is an unusual business.  Even after studying them, I had a hard time understanding whether they were book agents or television producers because they seem to do both.  Here’s how they work: they get a book or an idea, flesh it out, hire a ghost writer(s), then sell it via an in house agency.

There are several online articles about the company and most were not kind.  While doing my research, I came across terms like, complicated accounting and conflict of interest which should make any author shake in their boots.

A few months ago, they had an open submissions call and I submitted a manuscript of mine thinking they were looking for authors.  The submission’s call never mentioned anything about ghost writers which is why I’m talking about this.  Rumor has it, they pick poorly written books and use their contracted ghost writers to clean it up.  That should concern any author that signs with them.

It’s All in the Details

I’m not sure about the details of the author’s contract but she ended her contract when she fought them on key storyline points according to her own account.  Sadly, book packagers aren’t looking for an equal 50/50 partnership.  This author made the mistake of forgetting this was work for hire and not her intellectual property.  Is Alloy evil for letting her go?  Absolutely not.  They wanted things done a certain way and were hoping the writer they hired would provide just that.

    Being a ghost writer implies several things

  1. You’re not the owner of the intellectual property and most likely won’t get any credit.
  2. You don’t have any creative control.
  3.  Ghost writers only get a flat fee even if the project makes millions.
  4.  More likely than not, you will have to sign a confidentiality agreement or NDA.

Before You Sign…

I would be remiss in not reminding you to know exactly what your career goals are before you sign any contract.  Not every writer wants the same thing.  Some like me, are just looking to make a living, while others, are eager to become the next Stephen King.  In either case, signing with a book packager doesn’t seem to be the path to do any of that so author beware.

Now it’s your turn, have you worked with a book packager in the past?  If so, were there any problems?

Business, Legal, Publishing, Writing Business

The Argument For Spending Money: Copyrights

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Copyrights:  Why You Need Proof of Ownership!

Registering your manuscript with your government’s copyright (intellectual property) office is one of the most basic responsibilities of any indie author.  To claim the copyright of any work, one needs legal documented proof from a government copyright office.  Though copyrights are not free, they are much cheaper than hiring a lawyer and paying court fees.  In the U.S., one will run you about $35 in the U.K., ₤39 (for 5 years) and in Canada, $50.  Trust me, it’s money well spent.

What you get is not legal protection but evidence.  Your work is legally yours when you commit it to paper or digital file.  What you are paying for is a paper with a registration number that legally connects you to your book.  When I got mine through the mail, I was so excited that I immediately published my book.  It almost felt like getting a driver’s license.  Sadly, not everyone feels this way about their work and prefer to do things on the cheap which has spawned all kinds of hair brained schemes which could harm an author’s career.

Myths About Copyrights That Will Not Die

  • You can skip the whole legal process by mailing your manuscript to yourself via certified mail.  This is called the poor man’s copyright and no, it’s not true.
  • It annoys editors at publishing companies who want to buy your work.  Do you know what a publisher does after acquiring a book?  They register it at the copyright office!
  • Anything your write down is automatically copyrighted and can’t be stolen.  That’s like saying your car won’t get stolen because it belongs to you, try telling that to a thief!

Still not convinced a copyright is a necessary expense?  Here’s a story for ya: Just a few years ago, there were several people pirating books on Amazon by the hundreds, if not, thousands.  However, when authors reported these people for stealing their work, Amazon asked THEM to prove they were indeed the “real” owner of the property.  Remember indie author stands for independent author.  Nobody’s watching our backs, not Amazon, or anybody else!

I hope none of you ever has to defend a copyright but let’s not base our writing business on wishful thinking.  In the real world there are thieves, con artists and dream killers, don’t open yourself up to being robbed of what’s rightfully yours.  *Stepping off soapbox*

If you want to read more on the subject of copyrights and worst case scenarios check out: What To Do When Someone Pirates Your Ebook