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Why I tell writers not to get too excited about copyright.

November 7th, 2011 . by Peggy

There are reasonable privacy precautions to take when you start a publishing project. But don’t obsess over the stuff that doesn’t matter.

Almost every Author comes to me with a lot of fear (read: baggage from bad stories they’ve heard or imagined) about “copyright” and the possibility of people stealing their stuff.┬áIn all 12+ years I’ve worked as an editor, I’ve only seen two Authors who have lost anything because they didn’t sign the proper contracts. Neither were clients of mine, but they came to me for advice after such a thing happened. One was a case involving a divorce, (yeah, like I’m going to get involved in *that*!) and the second was a business partner that wasn’t happy and split, taking the IP (Intellectual Property) with her to market on her own. I’ve seen many, many more people throw around their IP without any protection at all, and never had anything happen. From what I’ve witnessed in my own businesses and those of my husband, disputes over ownership of content are very rare and usually involve something much more complicated, like an ugly divorce or the breakup of a business. It seems to become less common as technology advances, as it’s easier than ever to simply show a date stamp on a document and prove that we thought of it first.

All written works are protected by default copyright laws in Canada, the USA, and most of Europe, as per the Berne Convention. As it states on Wikipedia,

In all countries where the Berne Convention standards apply, copyright is automatic, and need not be obtained through official registration with any government office. Once an idea has been reduced to tangible form, for example by securing it in a fixed medium (such as a drawing, sheet music, photograph, a videotape, or a computer file), the copyright holder is entitled to enforce his or her exclusive rights.

In other words, as long as you can prove that you were the originator of the work (old files, notes, printouts with your edit marks, etc.) then you’re pretty safe in a general sense. The thing is, if you catch someone stealing your stuff, you would still need to prove it, and take it to court to be compensated in any way. (Although usually the threat to sue is enough to make people hold off.) The only benefit of actual copyright registration is that if you sue, you can sue for more money, and in different ways. But you’d still have to decide if it was worth it to fork out money for a lawyer in the first place.

When should you worry about copyright? In the music community, it’s a popular theme and debate. I’m not saying that theft doesn’t happen, because of course it does. And nothing I say here on this website replaces the advice of a good lawyer. But if worrying about this is stopping from creatively progressing with your work, I think you need to pause and consider if there’s a real issue, or an imagined one.

Now on the other hand, a smart and cheap way to give everyone a little more comfort is to sign an NDA, or non-disclosure agreement. I paid a lawyer to write mine, which you can now download by clicking the linked image at the top of this article. (Feel free to steal this and re-work it for your own evil purposes.)

What does this NDA do?

- It says that you promise not to steal my ideas about editing / technology / marketing, and I promise not to steal your ideas about your content.

- It says that you can’t circumvent me and go to one of my suppliers without paying me, nor I to your suppliers.

- It says that we’re both bound to do this equally. This contract doesn’t make a distinction between you or I, and so it doesn’t favour any one party.

- It says that we both agree to do this for 5 years, for a variety of projects in that time. (You don’t need to sign one for each of the 5 books on which you’re working.)

- It says that this NDA does not constitute a contract to do work, and that we’re just agreeing not to steal from each other.

So, to whom should you send this document? Certainly your editor, because we know all your secrets. And possibly any consultants that you hire to work on the project, and your graphic designer. And anybody that you ask for input as you develop your ideas. But that’s about it. You would not ask early reviewers and potential distributors, for example. In the first place, you want to be really nice to those people, and in the second place, they’re not interested in stealing anything anyway. Not that asking people to sign an NDA isn’t nice, but it can put some people on the defensive.

It’s not that your stuff isn’t worth stealing – I’m sure it is. But it seems we’re all too worried about our own ideas being stolen to worry about stealing anyone else’s.

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Dealing with Graphic Designers

December 16th, 2008 . by Peggy

I recently had a question posed to me by a self-publishing author about how to choose and negotiate with a graphic designer.

She asks, “…Pay per job, per hour or a combo of paying for the job plus a percentage of the first set # of books sold. Any opinions?”

Most graphic designers, if they are experienced enough to be worthy of doing your project, will know enough about the tasks ahead of them to quote by the job. Some designers do enough print work that they can speed up the process by templating certain technical, unseen parts of the process, much like an editor or writer has a specific methodology that they follow based on successful experience. Templating is not meant to imply that anything they create for you will look like anything else they’ve ever created – I’m talking about codes and document settings, etc.

Most experienced print designers will not accept a royalty, unless it is part of a payment package. If your project is very graphic, such as a profile of a painter or other artist, and the product of the designers work will be considered a work of art in itself, or if perhaps you’re sharing major credit with the graphic designer, a base payment plus royalty may be considered. But as most graphic designers are freelancers, I’ve found that many of them just prefer to keep things simple, and get paid right away.

Paying by the hour may be requested if a designer is working with you for the first time, if they are looking to do some “test” work to see if they like working with you, if they’re new to freelancing (which doesn’t necessarily mean new to design) or if you are hiring them on a number-of-hours-per-week situation to work on a variety of projects that you have on the go.

If a designer pushes you to pay by the hour for a single pre-determined project, first check to see if you’ve been clear about the job specs. With proper direction from you, designers usually know how long a job will take them, and this provides you with better cost predictability.

That being said, most designers will include an hourly rate that they will charge for anything outside the original spec. If you find yourself in a position where you need to make changes, approach the designer and ask them if what you’re asking is minor or major work. If it’s major, either pass or learn for next time.

The most important thing to consider when working with any contractor*, especially in the case of a graphic designer, is a clearly-written spec doc. I usually type up a couple of pages that are as clear a set of instructions for the job as I can make it. Include anything you think might be helpful, such as pencil sketches, colour swatches, charts, diagrams, examples of work you like from other designers, etc. The document should definitely include things like the time frame for completion, exactly how many images you need created and what size / resolution, and a technical description of how the final product will be used. Output specs from the printer are essential for designers, so that they know they will be able to accept certain file types, etc.

As with many things in a large project, communication is the key. If a designer feels that you’re ready to give them all they need to free their creativity, they will do the same for you.

[* Don't forget to have them sign a non-disclosure agreement! Other tips for dealing with designers and contractors will be offered here in a future post.]

I eagerly invite comments and constructive criticism from any graphic designers who read this post. What can we do to make doing business with you easier?

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The Problem With Editors is They Know All Your Secrets

January 30th, 2008 . by Peggy

Writers cannot, repeat cannot do business without a standard Non-Disclosure slash Non-Circumvention Agreement in place between themselves and anyone else involved in the project. I promised a post about this issue some time ago, and when the topic came up in casual conversation today, I was reminded to write about it here.

An NDA, as it’s commonly referred to, is basically a little paper that you sign with a potential client / boss / partner / collaborator before you tell them a single thing about your fab million-dollar idea. The paper basically says that I won’t tell your secrets and you won’t tell mine. A good NDA should bind both parties to exactly the same obligations, the same way. I’m so dead-set on this that I’m happy for anyone who reads this to download a copy of my current NDA here for free.

Now here’s the part where I explain that I’m not a lawyer, and that you shouldn’t take legal advice from me, like, ever. I’m just a person who’s been burned about a dozen times, and has seen others hit the same way. Live and learn – from my experience. When reading this PDF you’ll notice that it’s stamped in blood-red with the word “EXAMPLE” all over the place, which is there to remind you about this paragraph that states clearly that a blog entry is NOT, I repeat, NOT a replacement for quality legal advice. The reason I’m offering this document is so that you can read it through and get a good idea of what I’m talking about.

Pay special attention to the words “To use such information, trade secrets and strategies only for the purpose of evaluating proposals and projects or developing projects pursuant to a written agreement authorizing the application;” which means that you will have to write some sort of contract with your client. This document is not a contract for work – but it should always accompany one. This is what you sign before you discuss their/your, idea or even get remotely close to a contract. I update it from time to time, if I think of anything that needs to be added. But as you read it here, this has been in use for about a year without any edits, so I think it’s pretty complete.

I sign this exact document with virtually everyone my biz comes in contact with, including my authors (of course), my print rep, my marketing guru, my publicist, my channel sales rep, the bookkeeper that only comes on Fridays, the cameraman on the video projects, my regular UPS guy, and the cleaning lady who vacs the office. I’m not kidding. It costs nothing, takes 5 minutes, and shows professionalism. I simply can’t talk to you (or even in front of you – despite how lovely my cleaning lady is) unless we have both signed this document.

This is one of those learn-the-hard-way moments that I really hope you’ll take my advice on.

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