Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Writer's Journey Continued

While doing final edits for a book I'd written and submitted to the publisher almost a year ago, I ran across a passage that was uncannily familiar. Where had I seen it before?

Ah, yes, it was eerily similar to a piece I'd written for an anthology (with a different publisher) that had just been released. Hmmm. I didn't remember using those specific words before, but there they were, almost verbatim. What to do? What are the ethics involved here?

Take heed to these excerpts from the "Excavating Ethics" chapter of "Grit for the Oyster: 250 Pearls of Wisdom for Aspiring Writers":

"The U.S. Copyright Office says, 'You may make a new claim in your work if the changes are substantial and creative - something more than just editorial changes or minor changes.' That includes your own work for which you've sold 'all rights.'"

"Since ideas cannot be copyrighted, you are certainly free to use the same idea, but you must approach it differently..."

"Contrary to popular belief, book titles and character names can't be copyrighted. However, if the title or name is 'distinctive' enough to be associated with a preexisting work, trademark laws may apply."

So how does this translate to my situation?

I altered several key sentences in the newest work, creating a fresh line of thought. While maintaining similar concepts in both pieces, I was not infringing on any ethical or legal fine lines.

The tricky part was explaining to the editor why I was changing content at this late date without appearing as if I had intentionally mooched off my own previous work. Intentional or not, nobody likes a copycat.

Especially publishers who are paying you for original work.