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I’m continuing my blogs about a first-time writer choosing between traditional publishing and self-publishing.

One key difference between those two routes is that a writer who chooses traditional publishing will have a contract with a publishing house. I thought I would write posts about copyright, promises of the publisher under a traditional publishing contract and promises of the writer.

Before continuing, I have these important cautions.

  • My posts are not intended as legal advice and shouldn’t be relied on as such. They’re for general information.
  • I’m going to focus on Canadian law to illustrate concepts. However, copyright and contract laws vary by jurisdiction. Typical contract terms do as well.

So, if you’re a first-time writer considering signing a contract with a publisher, you must get advice from a lawyer qualified to review the contract.

Here then is a very basic overview of some of the main aspects of Canadian copyright applied to a work of fiction created by a first-time writer.

Why is copyright important? For a writer interested in traditional publishing, copyright is essential because it’s the right the writer sells an interest in or licences to a publisher in exchange for royalties. If a jurisdiction’s laws didn’t say that a writer owns copyright in her book, it would be harder or impossible for her to realize value from the book.

What is copyright? Under the Copyright Act (Canada), “copyright” is defined in relation to a work. For a literary work, most fundamentally, copyright means the sole right:

  • to produce or reproduce the work or any substantial part of it in any material form, and
  • if the work is unpublished, to publish the work or any substantial part of it.

However, the basic copyright definition is extended in many ways. For example, for a novel, copyright includes, among other things, the sole right to publish any translation in the work, to convert it into a dramatic work and to convert it into a cinematographic work.

As a first-time Canadian writer, does my book automatically have copyright? The Copyright Act creates conditions that must be met before copyright subsists in a book. However, in many cases, they are easily met. For example, copyright subsists in an original literary work if the author, at the date of making the work, was a citizen of any of the countries, including Canada, that has signed specified treaties relating to copyright.

How long does copyright last? In Canada, copyright in a work generally subsists for the life of the author and fifty years after the end of the calendar year in which she dies. There are exceptions.

How does a writer come to own the copyright in her book? The Copyright Act says that, subject to other provisions, the author of a work is the first owner of copyright in the work. One exception is where a writer creates a book in the course of being employed by someone else. In that case, the employer will be the first owner of copyright unless the parties agree otherwise.

Infringement. If someone infringes a writer’s copyright, the Copyright Act provides for civil and criminal remedies. There are exceptions to infringement such as fair dealing.

Needless to say, piracy thrives because enforcing copyright is costly or difficult to pursue.

Assignment/Licence: An author of a work can assign or licence her copyright in whole or in part. In a traditional publishing contract, the assignment or licence is the main right the publisher is buying.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

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