Whose Book Is It Anyway?

The self publishing phenomenon is transforming the literary landscape, but what rights do self published authors have? Wayne Beynon, one of the Media & IP lawyers at Cardiff and London based law firm, Capital Law explains.

The literary world is evolving as never before.

The cost of paper is rising year on year, and according to Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, e-book sales soared by 70% last year.

But perhaps the biggest literary news of 2012 was saucy page-turner 50 Shades of Grey, which became the world’s best-selling book of all time.   A stunning feat when you consider that the early versions of the 50 Shades trilogy were self published on the internet before being picked up by a small Australian publisher who released them solely as e-books. With a marketing budget of zero.

So what exactly is self publishing? Previously derided as a bit of a vanity project, self publishing has seen a significant rise in recent years, as unpublished, uncontracted authors seek to distribute their work beyond the limited confines of their Macbook.  The trend has been made possible thanks to the interminable e-book revolution, which has seen the likes of Amazon introduce self publishing portals for the multi-million selling Kindle.

Self publishing is even being endorsed by the traditional mainstream publishers. ‘Publishing services’ like HarperCollins’authonomy.com and bookcountry.com from Penguin US are seen as a step towards mainstream publishing acceptance of the self publishing phenomena (or as the cynics point out; a way to make money from unpublished manuscripts that aren’t deemed good enough to make it to the supermarket shelves).

Whether self publishing be a so called vanity project, or exploitation on behalf of the publishers, there’s no denying that it’s on the up. According to figures released last year by Bowker, which issues ISBNs for books published in the US, writers are self publishing at an unprecedented rate. The number of self-published books in America grew by 287% to 235,625 books between 2006 and 2011.

Self-published ebooks make up 37% of that total, with 87,201 released in 2011 alone, up 129% since 2010, with print growing 33% in the same period.

And the phenomena is not simply churning out literary dross either. In 2012 four self published authors even made the New York Times best sellers list.

The situation is no different in the UK, albeit on a lesser scale in terms of volume. According to Bowker Market Research’s Books & Consumers UK survey, self-published books accounted for around 11% of all ebooks purchased by UK consumers in the first half of 2012.

So far, so landscape changing. However, self publishing mavericks lack the established publishing package of the agent and editor and all the associated benefits that a publishing deal brings. Self published authors are effectively out in the literary cold and therefore all of the intellectual property protection work is falling to the writers themselves, rather than the legal team at your publishing house.

So how do self published authors protect their work from IP piracy, or just simply avoid being taken advantage of?

It’s important that authors know the specifics of issues that can arise when self-publishing. The primary form of IP protection for authors is copyright.  Copyright protects the work of a writer by giving them exclusive rights over original works they create.

Copyright protects the originator of any creative work from the moment they put pen to paper, or conceive a musical score. The author as owner rule also applies to self published books. Since no publisher is involved, authors retain all rights to the book.

Despite this, it is highly recommended that self publishing authors register their work with the UK Copyright Office so that a public record of authorship is created. This is essential should you ever need to be officially recognised as the copyright holder in a court of law.

It is also important to be aware of the terms and conditions of self publishing distribution platforms such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.  Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing terms and conditions state that the author retains all copyright ownership rights in ebooks that they publish, however Amazon and other platforms also assume the right to adjust the price equal to the lowest price offered on the book by any other vendor. So although you retain ownership of the book, you also sign away the right to any say in how it is marketed to consumers.

Whilst the self publishing movement is undoubtedly on the rise, the simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of authors are unlikely to ever make any real money from their literary endeavours. However, it certainly pays to be protected. I’m betting the $15 million lady EL James knows her copyright law, and with a movie deal in the works I would imagine she is looking to maximise the value of the IP attached to her works.

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