Legal matters are something authors who publish through traditional publishing houses tend not to think about. Publishing houses employ or retain their own legal counsel, meaning historically, authors haven’t had to bother fretting over these issues. However, if you are your own publisher — and if you self-publish, you are — legalities are something you may have to think about. If you’re writing fiction that doesn’t rely on real or historical figures to tell the tale, you probably have little to think about, legally speaking.
Most legal issues arise out of the use of copyrighted materials — images, likenesses, ideas, names, brands, etc. — which means that nonfiction authors and authors who include nonfiction elements in their books should be aware of potential issues before they publish. It’s always smart to get advice from an expert to sort out what items are copyrighted and which are public domain. Knowing the difference could be a huge time- and money-saver — and well worth the price of legal counsel.
You can probably obtain legal advice from a copyright attorney for a nominal fee if you have specific questions about certain references in your book. This could be money well spent: All too often, authors pay fees to entities who claim to hold a copyright, only to discover the “copyrighted” material in question was actually public domain — which doesn’t require a fee.
This issue also crops up sometimes when quoting material, such as a famous speech, song lyrics or other famous written and spoken material. Generally speaking, authors weave in these references to illustrate a point or bring a scene or story to life, and such uses are generally considered fair use. The distinction lies largely in whether you are referencing a famous work or individual or referencing a private/non-famous person, and whether the material uses is integral to the work.
Basically, famous is fair game, but non-famous — like your neighbor or a family member — are not fair game. When considering quoting materials within a work, generally, materials that play an integral part of the story line are also fair game. For example, if you’re quoting song lyrics in a book about a serial killer who uses these in his crime, that would be integral to the story and would be fair game.
Of course, these are only a couple of the most common legal issues authors encounter, and there’s no way to cover them adequately on this forum. If you ever have doubts about the legality of your material, consult an attorney. For minor issues, your Personal Marketing Assistant may be able to point you in the right direction.