Copyright For Writers, Publishers and Online Business Owners

By Jamie McSloy / July 24, 2017
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Copyright And You As An Online Business Owner

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is in not knowing what they’re doing when it comes to the legal side of their business.

In fact, one of the biggest mistakes businesses make is in not knowing about the law and regulations regarding what they’re doing. Whether you’re a hobbyist who has a little business on the side and thinks, “It doesn’t apply to me” or a libertarian die-hard who thinks the government should mind its own god-damned business, the fact is that the law is there and important whether you like it or not.

It can be a great aid to your business or it can be a hindrance (and I say that politely.)

For writers and online publishers, a big part of what you should know and understand is copyright and in a wider sense intellectual property law. Most people don’t, and it’s a big mistake.

Especially when you consider how expensive lawyers are.

In this article, a general overview of the very basics you need to learn and why you need to learn them. I also delve into how I learned them using a simple process. You won’t be a lawyer by the end of this article, but if you follow the advice, you’ll know more than you do right now and that’s information that’s worth more than gold for your future as a publishing business owner.

(Bear in mind, this is all totally-not legal advice. That should be another rule of talking about the law on the internet; anyone giving legal advice over it should be treated with absolute suspicion seeing as you’re not supposed to give legal advice over the internet. I would say, “You guys wouldn’t trust a random internet blogger over a doctor” but there are a million bloggers who push pills who aren’t doctors, so whatever.)

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What You Need To Know About Copyright And Why You Need To Know It

One of the weirdest things I’ll find on my internet travels are people who ask really basic questions about copyright law.

Like, “Can I just take the words from someone else’s articles and put them on my website?”

Or, “I signed a publishing contract and the publisher is making a ton of money and not paying me!”

Or, “I wrote this article for a website and now they want to republish it on another site. Should I be getting paid?”

If you are a writer, content producer or online publisher of any kind – and yes, that includes your basic hobbyist blogger too – then the value you provide is in the intellectual property. It’s not the web page itself and it’s not even the words themselves. It’s the legal principle behind which people have the “right” to “copy” work.

For any given piece of work you write and sell, it needs to be clear at all times:

  1. Who owns the work
  2. Who has the right to use the work
  3. The exact context in which they can use the work
  4. What happens if any of the above is not being followed

I see people online who’ll ask, “Someone is stealing my stuff! What can I do about it?”


“I want to steal someone’s stuff. What can they do about it?”

If your business is intellectual property, then learning this is as important as a farmer learning how not to kill himself with the machinery he uses. Sure, it’s not what you do per se. but if you don’t know it, you can lose a lot more than you’d imagine.

How To Learn About Copyright

My general advice for learning about anything worth learning generally falls into a pattern of a few key steps:

  • Forget any notion of “hacking” complex systems. A little bit of knowledge is a terrible thing.
  • There are syllabuses of study for pretty much every topic under the sun. Find them.
  • Pick the ones that have been honed for years by experts in the field. Not online gurus.
  • Pick from those a handful of dusty, dense and thick tomes on your subject of interest in order from beginner>intermediate>advanced
  • Read them in their entirety and make notes
  • Do whatever exercise or turn case studies and examples into exercises by guessing what comes next
  • Free practice where you apply what you’ve learned to your own life and real or imagined scenarios
  • Move on to the next step or file away in succinct information steps until needed

Learning about copyright law is absolutely something worth learning and follows all the above steps.

Luckily, law is one of the most popular subjects across higher education, which means a) There are fantastic materials for learning at all levels and b) students dump their textbooks every year and you can get them at a massively reduced rate.

For instance, you could get:

  • An Introduction to Law in general (This varies for your area and field… you won’t need to read all of it because law is wide, deep and complex. You just need to know the basics of how it functions.) For the UK, this’ll be A-level/first year undergraduate level.
  • An Introduction to Copyright Law or Intellectual Property Law. (This’ll be undergraduate but maybe second or third year depending on the syllabus. Remember we’re not trying to be a lawyer here.)
  • Specific papers/guides/books as and when needed. (For instance, online publishing law material.)

That Sounds Tough…

If the above sounds like a lot of work, then you have two choices:

  1. You can go ask the internet and get advice that ranges from the quite-convincing-but-ultimately-might-be-wrong-and-expensive advice to the god-damn-this-is-downright-terrifying-advice. Bear in mind it’s often a coin toss between the two.
  2. You can see a lawyer for loads of money.

Now, if you’re having actual legal trouble, the second is probably unavoidable. But like learning about basic car maintenance and then going to a mechanic, having a basic understanding of the problem will save you a lot of time, money and potentially heartache.

Really though, reading a handful of books and getting to grips with complex systems that apply directly to you is a fulfilling activity and good for you. The gains outweigh the costs by an unthinkable amount.