Legal Issues in Self-Publishing: What Authors Need to Know

This article, by Bernard Starr, originally appeared on the Huffington Post Books blog on 12/24/12.

Self-publishing continues its exponential growth. More and more authors are choosing this route for presenting their work to the public, encouraged by impressive success stories, including accounts by bestselling writers who have moved over from traditional publishing to take advantage of greater profits and better control of their works.

But there is one domain that self-published authors rarely think about, which mainstream publishers have traditionally managed: legal issues.

If you self-publish, you are the publisher and thus assume all the legal responsibilities. At first this might seem frightening. But it doesn’t have to be, as I discovered in my interview with Paul Rapp, an attorney who specializes in intellectual property rights in Monterey, Mass. and teaches Art & Entertainment Law and Copyright Law at Albany (N.Y.) Law School. He also discusses copyright issues in publishing on Vox Pop on Northeast Public Radio.

Rapp says he is working increasingly with self-publishers and self-published authors. He cited the prominent legal issues that authors should pay attention to: The use of images, quotes, and other materials from copyrighted works, the use of public domain works, the amount of a published works that can be quoted, portrayals of real people in fictional works, the standards for portraying famous and non-famous persons, portrayals of real people in non-fictional works, and the importance of copyright registration.

Starr: Isn’t the provision of legal services an area where traditional publishing offers an edge to authors?

Rapp: The issues don’t go away whether you are publishing traditionally or self-publishing. While the legal department of a publishing house may assess the legal issues in a work and advise, or demand changes if necessary, that doesn’t release the author from responsibility. Every publishing agreement that I have ever seen has an indemnification clause in which the author agrees to hold the publisher harmless if there are claims against the publisher for any infringement or violation of personal rights. That being said, most publishers vet books before they go out and have insurance policies that cover most of these lawsuits; the insurers may also vet a manuscript prior to publication. But I think this is happening less and less, leaving the author exposed. And I’m seeing a lot of agreements that, particularly for non-fiction books, require the author, rather than the publisher, to get necessary permissions and licenses to use any third party material.

Starr: What advice do you have for self-publishing authors who have legal concerns?


Read the rest of the post on the Huffington Post Books blog.