We often help Baby Boomers with copyright clearance issues as they come close to realizing a long-held goal of getting their memoirs written and published. Avoiding accidental copyright infringement is a frequent discussion topic.
Baby Boomers want to write their memoirs for various reasons. They may suddenly be compelled to take that step of authorship because they have such a rich history to share with the younger generation. They think of publishing a memoir as sharing their legacy. Or they may think it important to share their own individual experience in a way that sheds light for others on some past event. Maybe they want to finally tell their story about serving in Vietnam or about fleeing their homeland of Vietnam and making a new life in America. They may want to share what it is like to grow up in a small town in mid-America or as a child of military parents, experiencing many global moves and struggling to fit in, in new environments. Others just want to brag about their exploits, and many have some exciting tales to tell!
And they may feel that the inclusion of song lyrics, old family photos, pictures with celebrities, previously published news photos or quotations, and excerpts from the work of others is important to their story. We often help our memoir-writing clients understand the copyright-related issues involving the use of these items, and we take the necessary steps to keep their use of copyrighted items legal. Sometimes when the procedures for clearing a copyright are not overly complicated, as they often are, we share in a consultation or training session with them so that they may take those steps themselves.
Let’s look briefly at each of the categories of potential copyright infringement issues we have mentioned.
Copyright Infringement of Song Lyrics
Often clients want to include song lyrics written by a lyricist and/or sung by a famous band from the ’60s, ’70s, and even the ’80s—though including the ’80s is pushing the limits of who make up the Baby Boomer Generation (1946 – 1964). Maybe it’s their editor who says, “I don’t think you can include a couple of lines from “Hey Jude” by The Beatles or “War,” a Normal Whitfield and Barrett Strong, without asking someone for permission. Maybe their publisher is the one who raises a red flag, refusing to include a recording of their favorite song by Edwin Starr (1969) in their ebook version. Unfortunately, many new authors have no idea that the use of even a line or two from a song can be copyright infringement. Learn more about staying legal and using song lyrics in one of our blogs.
Copyright Infringement of Photos
We frequently get asked about using personal photos in memoirs. It gets a bit tricky from a copyright infringement perspective because several factors can come into play. We ask some important questions in the process of determining risk of copyright infringement for our clients:
- Who took the picture?
- Was the picture taken on public or private property?
- In what country was the picture taken?
- Are there any trademarked or copyrighted items in the photo?
- Did the photographer acquire a model release from people in the pictures?
Then we often ask ourselves questions to in order to estimate potential risks:
- How difficult will it be to identify and make contact with the photographer and people in their photographs?
- What is the likelihood that someone will discover that our writers are using their copyrighted photo without their permission?
- Will anyone really care these memoir writers are publishing a photo without their permission?
We wrote a blog about using photos that you may consult for more details. And if your photo happened to be taken by a crested macaque (That’s a monkey.), we even wrote a blog about that! Seriously, it offers some important information about who actually owns a photograph under U.S. copyright law.
Copyright Infringement of Letters
Do you have old letters you wish to publish? Maybe they support your arguments about the time you lived through or offer insight into the character of a person, practices of a culture, or the prevailing misconceptions of an era.
Having a letter in your possession, like having a photo in your possession, does not mean you own copyright to it, and to include it in your book without research and a risk assessment regarding copyright infringement is a bad idea. You may assume that because the items are old they are out of copyright or that no one alive may care or have claim to them. Unpublished letters actually have considerable copyright protection under U.S. copyright law. Oftentimes, family members who feel they have more claim to a quote or a photo than the publisher may take exception to their use and once they see them in a published work may threaten to file or actually file an infringement suit. (At times people may feel compelled to file a defamation suit because they see a photo as portraying them in a negative light. This situation, however, is not discussed in our articles on copyright. It is an important issue to for writers to consider, though.)
Excerpts from newspapers, journals, books, blogs, and magazines
An excerpt from any published material may be under copyright. Unless you are counting on the work being in the public domain or the excerpt use falling under fair use, you will want to seek permission to use it. The concepts of fair use and public domain are legal issues under US copyright law that are discussed in our book Copyright Clearance for Creatives, and we would advise looking at the chapters on these concepts and/or doing or having us do a risk analysis on using the content. Simply contact us if you wish to start a conversation.
Want More About Copyright Law?
Order your copy of Copyright Clearance for Creatives for a basic overview of copyright law and essential guidelines on when, how, and where to get permission to use copyright content in your works.