Friday, November 6, 2009

I had a few random questions recently from aspiring writers that I'd like to touch on this week.

What if my book title is similar to an existing book? Can titles be copyrighted?

No, titles cannot be copyrighted, nor can story ideas or character names, but it's just not good form to imitate the work of other people too closely. Approach that great idea you read about from a different view or target a different audience. Personalize information and beware of trademark laws which protect "distinctive" work with highly recognizable phrases or character names. For example, you could write a book about the Civil War, but don't name your protagonist Scarlett and dress her in green velvet curtains.

How should I handle trademarked materials in my novel?

To quote from my chapter "Excavating Ethics" from Grit for the Oyster: 250 Pearls of Wisdom for Aspiring Writers, "We must take care to use organizations' logos or trademarks properly. For example, Xerox and Velcro are registered trademarks with specific usage guidelines and should be used only as capitalized adjectives to identify the company's products and services, never as verbs (i.e. "Please xerox that article," or "Why don't you velcro that shoe?"

"Terms like Google and Netflix are beginning to be used generically, but caution should be taken with these and other descriptive trademarked words like Frisbee, Cineplex and La-Z-Boy. "

Is "borrowing" excerpts from other writers considered plagiarism?

As long as you cite your reference (and don't exceed a paragraph or two at most), it is acceptable and even a complimentary to quote another writer. But borrowing without returning (documenting your source) is stealing and not only are you opening yourself up for possible lawsuits, you're lowering your bar of moral standards and damaging your reputation.

What about using material I found on the internet? Do copyright laws apply?

Amy Cook, Writer's Digest legal expert, states that "Original stories, poems and quotes are all copyrighted matieials, whether they exist on a piece of paper or a computer screen. If you don't get permission from the people who hold the rights, then you're stealing thteir material" (3/04 Writer's Digest p. 24).