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.
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!