Writers, bloggers, auteurs: Ever look to tighten that dialogue, perhaps crowdsource an idea for that third act climax? The social interaction and sharing technologies brought about by Web2.0 may seem like an ideal platform for writers to workshop their work with others.
Beware! Here be dragons in the realm of copyright law.
Of Law and Literary Works
The US Copyright Act of 1973 (17 U.S.C. § 102 for the legally minded among us) grants authors copyrights in “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” This means that original expression set down by the author in a tangible medium (this has come to include web pages and e-books in addition to traditional paper) becomes an exclusive copyright of that author.
Who’s Afraid of a Collaborative Effort?
Under general copyright law, namely the caselaw jurisprudence that has developed over the years, joint authors in a work equally share the copyright in that work.
Does this mean that workshopping your story online runs the risk of granting some of your rights as an author to your online collaborators? Not necessarily, but there is some trickiness to it.
Specifically, the Copyright Act goes on to provide that “[i]n no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”
This means that ideas are not protected, only the expression of those ideas becomes the author’s exclusive right.
For example, I can write a story about a boy wizard who goes to a school for wizards and gets into all sorts of adventures. But it is only once I start describing him as a boy with a jagged scar on his brow with a name something like “Harry” will Ms. Rowling’s team of Aurors in pinstripe suits start knocking at my door. Indeed, fans of Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea will note the irony.
So if you workshop online and your collaborators suggest all sorts of great ideas for that next chapter but you go back to your desk and express those ideas in your own words and vision, then you will most likely retain one hundred percent of the copyright.
But if your online friends start rewriting your chapters and you incorporate their work into the final product, then they have been upgraded from mere collaborators to co-authors with all the rights and privileges that come with the title. What’s more: those online forums are permanent evidence of the co-authorship.
The Art of Copyright Protection
The simplest solution is to just avoid copying any form of expression. Take the ideas, thank your fans or collaborators, and run with those ideas — but avoid copy/paste at all costs.
The somewhat more complicated solution is to carefully read the Terms & Conditions of any collaborative website you frequent. Terms can be written to include clauses which release all rights of collaborators who post to the site. Of course this solution is somewhat less reliable to the extent that online terms fall under, as still, a young area of law, and there is no clear jurisprudence confirming the extent to which such contracts can be used to disclaim users’ rights.
Collaborate, but be smart about the effort and what you ultimately incorporate into your final product.
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