Intellectual Property (IP) and copyright

Intellectual Property (IP) and copyright

The subject of Intellectual Property (IP) and the concept of copyright both seem to make people glaze over. The merest mention elicits banishing comments of
“oh I don’t understand all that stuff” and with a wave of the hand the subject is closed.

Well I’m here to be the party pooper in the room. It is vital you get comfortable with IP and copyright if you are considering writing or commissioning a book. Put it this way, if you hire a ghostwriter you may believe by simply paying the ghostwriter for the time they took to write the book is enough to transfer the creative ownership over to you.

Sort of, kind of but no – not exactly!  Legally speaking the ownership of the work belongs to the originator, but professionally contracted ‘ghostwriters’ will generally be willing to ‘Assign’ ownership to the commissioner. There is a lot of fine print around this area but in a nutshell money and written agreements must be exchanged before you have the right to call someone else’s creative works your own. This of course impacts Rights, Royalties and Attributions on both sides so before you make a costly mistake, read on.

Intellectual Property (IP) owned by the publisher covers its copyright and licenses. The publisher may own some copyrights outright, or they may acquire licenses from their authors (so that could be you).

Other IP may be brands which could be registered as Trademarks. Trademarks can cover word marks (think CNN or Burger King), logos or images and these have to be renewed every 10 years. Well-known publishing Trademarks include Penguin (and the Penguin logo) and the Beatrix Potter characters such as Peter Rabbit. This is what IP refers to in the publishing sense (so nothing to do with your Internet Protocol/IP address).

It is important you have some level of understanding around copyright whether you are a writer, ghostwriter, commissioner, designer, musician or artist. 

Book publishing today is built on ‘copyright’. The best way to explain copyright if you are a novice is to say that ‘copyright provides protection’. This ‘protection’ provides authors and creatives in general, the legal ownership of their own work. By having the protection of copyright on your work you are telling the world – this is my creation – my property! As such you – and you alone – can do what you like with it. You have the right to sell or license it to others. It is these ‘exclusive rights’ that make an author’s work attractive to the publisher.

Publishers want the ‘sole’ right (the exclusive right) to publish the author’s work and to sell it as widely as possible. Without the protection of copyright – the author would not be in a position to ‘grant’ this right and would not be able to demand payment for the publisher’s privilege of ownership. Similarly a publisher is not going to risk publishing a book that will then immediately be stolen/adapted or plundered in some way – so you can see how ‘copyright’ works hard for both parties.

For Copyright to survive across literary work (written, spoken or sung) it must be ’original’.  Some level of skill, effort or talent//expertise is required to warrant copyright protection – and it must be recorded in writing. You cannot copyright an ‘idea’ for example. Even if another writer has a similar idea, the way they execute that idea would be very different from another writer. I talk more about this in “Afraid someone might steal your story idea?”

How long does copyright last?
The length of copyright varies from country to country (and in some cases depends on the creative work in question) so you will need to familiarise yourself with the law where you live.

Generally speaking though, the UK, Europe and the US stipulates copyright exists over the life of the author plus 70 years after their death. In Australia copyright exists for 50 years after the death of the author.

Once the copyright terms has ended the works are considered to be in the ‘public domain’.

What about works created in working hours?
As a copywriter (not copyrighter) or a feature writer, I used to write new and original materials every single day for my employers. Did I own the copyright of that work? The answer is ‘No’. Work created in working hours and covered by terms and conditions of service are the copyright of the employer. Publishers who commission freelancers will always ensure they own the copyright and this is done through an ‘Agreement’.

The publisher’s design, typographical layout of the page and even the cover design is copyright of the publisher. If a designer has created the artwork for a book cover, for example, the publisher will generally ask the designer to provide written permission so that they may use/own the artwork. They will then create their own hi-res files which are the Publisher’s property and the copyright last up to 25 years (depending on the country and nature of work).

As a Ghostwriter do I own copyright?

If you are a professional ghostwriter you will understand that as the “ghost” you will be paid to produce written work and you understand the commissioner will claim and use it as their own.

In exchange, you (the ghostwriter) as the real writer will be paid for your  work and finished product, and this will include payment for the ‘right’ to use your words as the commissioner’s own. 

Once money and a contract or agreement is exchanged you thereby relinquish ownership and copyright of the work produced – but only if the contract actually defines this trade. In some cases, where ownership is not bought, then you, as the original writer can sell a license to use the written material to the commissioner who can still then claim it as their own.

You have to keep in mind, if you are relinquishing Royalties and copyright/ownership of the work you created, you will require to be suitably reimbursed upfront. 

I hope this gives you some basic knowledge around a very important subject. If you are a commissioner of creative work I strongly advise you to only work with ghostwriters who are prepared to have conversations and agreements around Attribution and Copyright! You could find you don’t own the Rights to your manuscript at all.

As a Ghostwriter you also have to put a value on the service you provide and consider how long copyright lasts (50-70 years) and the potential loss of Royalties over that time if the book is a huge success!