How not to get sued when writing a book

Over the past few weeks I've been enjoying my new editing course Ethics and Legal Issues in Writing and Publishing at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver). Learning how to be a professional editor is making me a better writer and is giving me invaluable insight into the bigger picture of writing a book. Let's just say it's important to know how not to be sued by someone saying you based a character on him or borrowed from his work without giving due credit. If you've ever wondered about this, here are a few bits of information to help inform your writing.

Some broad stroke terms you should be familiar with:

Copyright: In Canada, copyright is life of the author plus 50 years after the author's death (70 years in the US). Copyright protects the expression of the idea or intellectual creation; it does not protect the idea itself. 

Rights: Economic rights derive financial reward. Moral rights protect the integrity of work. (So no decorating that statue with Christmas lights outside the mall, lest the artist sues you for violation of her moral rights!)

Copyright infringement: Substantive taking of someone's work without getting permission or giving due credit. Allowable exceptions include using the work for the purpose of review, comment, criticism, education, or parody.

Plagiarism: Using another person's work as your own.

Appropriation of personality: The right to control the use of your own name, image, etc.   

Defamation: This relates to slander, libel, fair comment and responsible communication. A person who thinks he's been defamed must prove it false in court. Interesting to note, truth is a defense. 

Slander: Verbal defamation with no permanent record.

Libel: Written defamation with a permanent record including newspapers, letters, websites, email, pictures, etc. 

Privacy: This deals with the privacy of an individual, so for example, a person's privacy is violated if a picture of that person is used in a book that is intended to exploit that person's name or reputation. 

It's also common for lawsuits involving any of the issues listed above to be decided case-by-case, fact-by-fact, and always depending on intent. So while there is no cut-and-dry legal advice out there, you can always do your own research on the following websites to get a sense of which way the rulings tend to lean.

Canadian Legal Information Institute

IP Osgoode Law and Ethics Site

Note that I've written the above terms in non-legal, plain language; however, I must give credit to SFU and my wonderful instructor, Renée Sarojini Saklikar, author and lawyer, who so patiently guides us students through the complexity of terms and case studies.

Safe and happy writing, everybody!

Stacey D. Atkinson is the author of the newly released novel Stuck, which she published via her independent company Mirror Image Publishing.   

 

 

 

2 comments

  • Catherine Slusher
    Catherine Slusher
    Stacey: I am looking for info regarding writing a book about a child. He was a foster child in my home and has a story that needs to be told. I changed his name but am worried about confidentiality and being sued. Any hints? Thanks for your time and website cathy

    Stacey: I am looking for info regarding writing a book about a child. He was a foster child in my home and has a story that needs to be told. I changed his name but am worried about confidentiality and being sued. Any hints? Thanks for your time and website
    cathy

  • Stacey
    Stacey
    Hi Catherine. Thanks for the comment. As a tip, you should visit the website Rights of Writers, http://www.rightsofwriters.com/, a blog about writings and the law. In the search field (lower right-hand side), type in "memoirs" and you'll see a few pages of interesting case scenarios and tips for writers. As a general comment, you wouldn't normally be sued for telling a story that is true, but you could be sued for telling a story that makes a person identifiable to the public and is an invasion of privacy. You might want to consider seeking permission from the former foster child to write the book, or consider writing a fiction novel. These are suggestions only - not legal advice.

    Hi Catherine. Thanks for the comment. As a tip, you should visit the website Rights of Writers, http://www.rightsofwriters.com/, a blog about writings and the law. In the search field (lower right-hand side), type in "memoirs" and you'll see a few pages of interesting case scenarios and tips for writers. As a general comment, you wouldn't normally be sued for telling a story that is true, but you could be sued for telling a story that makes a person identifiable to the public and is an invasion of privacy. You might want to consider seeking permission from the former foster child to write the book, or consider writing a fiction novel. These are suggestions only - not legal advice.

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