Author of Closest to the Fire: A Writer’s Guide to Law and Lawyers
1. What inspired you to write your new book?
It started with a guest column for Indies Unlimited about writing accurate legal fiction. That post turned into a series of three, and afterward, the idea kept niggling at me. At some point in the ensuing several months, I started work on the book. My initial focus, like that of the blog posts, was on avoiding errors, but eventually I realized that I wanted to do more: to entice authors into exploring the many, many terrific story ideas to be found even in seemingly dry legal subject matter.
2. What do writers really need to know about the law?
Even if they have no intention of delving into legal plots or lawyer characters, writers need to know a certain amount about the law in pure self-defense. They should learn the basics of copyright law in their own country. They should know at least something about contract law: for example, that if a publisher presents them with a revised contract, it doesn’t legally bind the writer unless the writer agrees to its terms. (There could be a gray area if the initial contract attempted to make revisions automatically applicable unless the writer takes some action within a specified time – though I’m not sure such a clause would be enforceable.) They should know enough about the traps typically lurking in traditional publishing contracts these days that they can consult an IP (intellectual property) attorney and ask informed questions before signing such a contract.
3. What legal trends are you seeing as it relates to intellectual property?
There’s an ongoing tug of war between those who want shorter copyright terms and/or less protection for copyrighted materials (an issue which can arise, for example, when musicians “sample” other composers’ music) and those who focus on protecting the interests of the artists who initially produce copyrighted materials. There are also a number of people seeking to include fanfiction and fan art within the umbrella of “fair use” (since anything under that umbrella does not violate the original’s copyright).
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision held that at least some “speech” approved or registered by government entities (e.g. trademarks) count as the government’s speech rather than that of the applicant, allowing the government to deny permission without First Amendment limitations. This ruling has led not only to controversy but to follow-up lawsuits as to just what the ruling includes. For example, is there a significant difference between an automobile license plate proposed by some group and potentially manufactured for multiple drivers, and an individual license plate with a personally chosen message?
4. How can writers utilize your book to grasp a better understanding of the law?
The book is designed to be used in any of several ways. There’s a detailed Table of Contents (linked in the ebook), which I’ve tried to make somewhat informative in itself. Then there’s the Index – or rather, two versions of it, as the paperback Index is more detailed. These tools should make it easy for writers to look up any topic in which they’re already interested, but they can also begin by reading the Table of Contents and getting some idea of the basic framework of American criminal and civil law.
I’ve been delighted to hear that readers are finding the style engaging and easy to follow, so that some may choose just to dive in and read large swaths of the book in order.
5. What do you enjoy most--writing books or practicing law?
I’m going to evade the question a bit and say that I love writing, period. Of course, I enjoy different aspects of the two activities. Until recently, all my books have been novels, and I love letting a story and its characters lead me along and show me where they’re meant to go. (It’s a very cool feeling to discover that some detail I’ve thrown in as character background or set decoration actually plays an important role in the plot.) Besides the writing, one of my favorite parts of practicing appellate law is analyzing a case and finding weaknesses to exploit and ingenious arguments to press.
6. What would be some great legal subjects for novelists to tackle?
Here’s where I’m going to punt to my book. Almost any aspect of the law can make for entertaining and dramatic (and/or comedic) fiction. Here’s an example from another author’s work. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s engrossing and suspenseful Retrieval Artist series is essentially based on what many lawyers, and even more law students, would describe as a pretty dry procedural issue: namely, what jurisdiction’s law will apply to a particular dispute. (In the universe of the series, humans have spearheaded an alliance among multiple species, largely for purposes of economic activity, and the decision that alliance makes on how to handle conflicts between different species’ legal systems drives the ongoing narrative.)
7. What advice do you have for writers liking to protect their content from piracy, plagiarism, or unscrupulous publishers?
Many beginning writers overestimate the danger of piracy. There have, to be sure, been instances of it. For example, at least one “author” has made a habit of finding other people’s books and republishing them under a different name via the usual online outlets without informing or compensating the actual authors. But I would estimate the odds of this or anything similar happening to a particular writer’s books as miniscule.
Other potential types of plagiarism could include use of large portions of a book on someone’s website. One could use Google Alerts and the like to try to track any such use. If one discovers it, one could try to turn it into an opportunity by (civilly, at first, and then with increasing firmness and/or menace) demanding attribution and a link to places the book may be purchased.
Unscrupulous publishers or organizations claiming to assist self-publishers are, in my view, by far the most serious threat of those you’ve listed. There are many outfits, some affiliated with major traditional publishers, offering vastly overpriced services to new writers, services which may well be of inferior quality. Any service that one could obtain bundled (either by “being” published, or via an organization offering to “assist” in the self-publishing process) can be obtained a la carte from multiple competent freelancers, usually for far less. One can easily find such freelancers to provide editing, proofreading, cover design, interior design, interior formatting, and promotion. And some of these functions, such as basic ebook formatting for novels, aren’t hard to learn. (The same goes for the process of uploading completed book files to the various online retailers.)
Several websites, including “Writer Beware” and “Preditors [spelling intentional] and Editors,” exist to warn writers about companies whose business model is making money off writers rather than selling the writers’ books, or whose bookkeeping practices are suspect or sloppy. Writers should also be wary of publishers whose business is so shaky that writers signing with them risk ending up with unpaid royalties and/or abandoned books.
Even where reputable traditional publishers are concerned, any writer who still craves the validation of “getting” published needs to study up on the trade-offs currently involved in traditional publishing contracts versus self-publishing. For example, not only do major chains like Barnes & Noble not stock every (or close to every) traditionally published book, but some publishing contracts these days leave it entirely up to the publisher whether to publish a paper edition at all. And publishers usually expect authors to do a great deal of their own promotion.
For more information, please consult: www.cttf.karenawyle.net
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015
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