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The Price of Doing the Right Thing

The Internet is a glorious invention. It connects, assists, entertains, and, for better or worse, distracts us with its endless array of temptations. But, some of those temptations – for example, plagiarising another person’s work – must be resisted.

When it comes to literature, non-fiction writing, images, and music, the Internet is the most impressive repository of knowledge, information, and creativity since the library of Alexander the Great. And, given the scale of the Internet, it can be tempting to ‘borrow’ from a creator and call their words/work our own, thinking that the breadth of the Net will give us anonymity. Not so. The Internet is nothing if not egalitarian: what you can find, so someone else can find; what you’ve read, so someone else has read, on so on. This means, what is ‘borrowed’ will inevitably be recognised for what it is: someone else’s work. Yet, creative endeavours don’t arise in a vacuum. They are born out of a history of creativity, and that rich history can be inspiring and useful. But, in order to draw upon this wellspring, we must first seek the permission of the original creator to use their words or images, and we must usually pay for the privilege.

Shroudeaters and copyright permissions:

In traditional publishing, the seeking of permissions for the use of copyrighted material – which could include excerpts from stories and poems, articles, lyrics, or reproductions of art works (e.g. for a book cover) etc. – is handled by the publisher, and the costs involved are passed on to the writer. For independently publishing authors, we must seek these permissions ourselves, and bear the cost to our time and finances.

For practical purposes, I would suggest waiting until a piece of writing is nearing the final series of edits – maybe two full drafts away from being ready – before pursuing copyright permissions for two reasons. Firstly, stories change in the drafting process, and what makes it into the first draft might not be there in the final draft, therefore, it is pointless to seek (and pay for) copyright permissions before being sure about what the story requires. Secondly, receiving permission from copyright holders takes time, sometimes up to eight weeks with larger publishing companies. By starting the process with two or three drafts to go, the permissions should come in just as the editing process is completed.

The other reason to start before the end of the editing process is that finding out who the copyright holders are, contacting them, and receiving a response is not as straightforward as it might appear. For starters, the copyright holder of most traditionally published works is not necessarily the creator (writer/song writer etc.). The publisher usually holds the copyright, and there might be a number of these companies involved with a work. To make things more interesting, copyright can be transferred, or shared. So, for example, an extract from a novel originally published by Knopf might now be held by Random House; or perhaps Knopf has US rights, but Random House has the Canadian and worldwide rights.

As confusing and time consuming as the search is, I’ve found most publishers very helpful and willing to point me in the right direction if they are not the copyright holder. Still, finding the right person to contact in the first instance saves time and frustration. The University of Melbourne has a great webpage packed with information, and links about how to find and contact copyright owners. Likewise, Jane Friedman’s blog has great information about seeking permissions, while this blog of Jane's includes a detailed sample permission letter, although, many publishing companies (literary and music) have online portals where enquires can be lodged. The letter, however, could be useful if contacting a specific person within a publishing company.

So, this is where I’m at with Shroudeaters. The novel has three references to other pieces of literature and six snippets of lyrics. Two of the literary quotes are so old that they fall into the Public Domain and, therefore, don’t require copyright permissions.The third is a sentence from a well-known work by Albert Camus, which I definitely need permission to use in Shroudeaters. Likewise, I can’t publish the novel without receiving permission to use the song lyrics. These are interesting because, although I’m only using a few words from the songs, copyright permission can be quite expensive.

Not all copyright owners will charge writers to use copyrighted material. In my first novel, Mira Falling, I used a section of dialogue from the film, Gallipoli, and when I independently published the second edition, Associated R&R Films granted permission to use the extract without a fee. However, they may be the exception to the rule. In my second novel, Sisterhood, I sort permission to reproduce 187 words from a novel and paid $25.00 for the privilege (not that I minded; the extract was the perfect preface to my work). It’ll be interesting to see what a sentence from Camus will cost.

Then there are those song lyrics. As songs are concise by nature, a few words can cost a lot. So far, I’ve received offers of permission ranging from $30 - $300 (for 3 words. Yikes!) Ultimately, the decision to go ahead with reproducing copyrighted material is mine to make based on how important the inclusion of the material is to my work. At $300, I’ve decided I can do without those particular lyrics. Besides, I can get around the issue by using the song’s title – these are not copyrighted – or perhaps by having my character comment on the lyrics, so all is not lost. In the end, although I’d love to include the lyrics and quotes, I’m just as happy to do one last draft and let the writing stand on its own without them.

Until next time,


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