copyright, writing

A word about copyright

Something that happens to writers and speakers a lot is that people nick our stuff. They don’t mean to, they just don’t understand that if they commission something, if we speak at their event, our slides or our content remain our property unless we’ve specified otherwise.

People are sometimes shocked at this. It dates back to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. This specifies that where there is a creative work, the originator retains all rights. What you buy from a contributor is a license to use it, once unless specified otherwise (this applies to freelancers; if you’ve commissioned staff to create something then it’s deemed that your company is the creator, so you’re covered).

It’s at this point that a lot of clients throw their hands up in alarm and say “but I’ve paid for this, it must be mine”. To which I have one response: “Wedding photographers”. They turn up, they charge you a fortune for some pictures and then they sell them to you and absolutely prohibit you from reproducing them. How and why? It’s you in the pictures, after all? Well, yes it is. Nonetheless, in law they own the pictures.

It’s the same with book authors; we get royalties on sales because we, not the publisher, own the rights to our text. The publisher may well own the cover design and the layout, so I have to get permission when I’m using a cover to promote myself as a speaker or author.

Restrictive v. co-operative

Now, many writers and speakers take a flexible view of this. If you commission me to write for your publication, for example, and I’m doing a half-decent job of addressing your reader specifically, the work should be unusable by anyone else. And if I’m speaking at your event then absolutely, you can send my slides out afterwards (I use mainly images so they won’t mean much without me standing there explaining them anyway).

It’s worth putting this stuff in writing, though. A magazine publisher I used to know was at one point thinking of putting a book together of some of the best contributions he’d run – and his face fell completely when I pointed out that if he hadn’t sent out an agreement in which people allowed re-use of their material, he would have to ask for the rights all over again. I’ve seen event organisers announce that slides will be available after a speech only to have the speaker announce that they won’t; worse, I’ve seen organisers giving out slides on memory sticks and ending up in dispute with speakers who didn’t fancy giving away the crown jewels with no further payment, thanks. I’ve even seen small companies dismayed to find that their web designer owns their site, not them.

Most of this can be overcome by negotiation. I’d always advise speakers and writers to expect to share their stuff, the current audience expects it and frankly you’re going to get a better response and more chance of repeat commissions.

Just be aware that if you’re going to commission someone to create something for you, you need to have a look at what rights are assigned to you and just what you can do with it. Get it written into a contract and there will be no problem later; both walk away assuming you own the work and you’re heading straight for a clash.

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