Right to Resubmit

On 26 June, I received an e-mail from Strange Musings Press saying they were to close and that the rights from the stories they’d published would immediately revert back to their respective authors. This frees up my short story Amending Diabolical Acronym Misuse, which appears in their Alternate Hilarities anthology.

It isn’t well known,  even among authors, that once a piece is published, the publisher usually only holds the rights to it for a fixed period of time before said rights revert back to the writer. Some publishers accept reprints, and some original publishers insist that you credit that publication before it’s placed in a second home. It’s a good idea to credit the original publisher anyway, even if it isn’t insisted upon.

By now, it’s probably safe to resubmit my other two published stories, though I would still check the small print if I still have it, or e-mail the editors if I don’t. While it’s impossible to say how an individual editor feels, I know I’d be more inclined to accept a story if I knew it had been published before; a phenomenon known as the halo effect.

In the longer term, an author can retain copyright for a whole lifetime plus 70 years after death, which is why it’s so important to leave a will.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (soundtrack)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1971, Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was made into the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder. The author was so displeased that he specified in his will that its sequel Charlie and the Glass Elevator must not be made into a screenplay.

However, this didn’t prevent the 2005 remake starring Johnny Depp, which included some elements of the sequel. It will be interesting to see what happens when the novel falls into the public domain in the second half of this century as anyone will be able to use the work without charge. The question is whether people will still respect Dahl’s wishes at that point.

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Accidental Acquisition

If there’s one thing that keeps me awake at night, it’s subconscious plagiarism. It was reported this week that Ed Sheeran is being sued by two songwriters as he allegedly copied their work, and it’s always in the back of my mind that however original I think I am, there’s a chance I’ve accidentally remembered words from elsewhere.

At its most extreme, it can leave a person’s reputation damaged. In 2015, poet Sheree Mack was accused by some of ‘wholesale plagiarism’ of other poets’ work, although she denied it was deliberate.

But if you like another poet’s work, there are legitimate ways to reference them.

Writing After, then naming the poet

It’s a convention in poetry that you can credit someone else using this format. Let’s say I wanted to credit a certain political poet from the 1980s, I might write:

Nigel at B&Q
After Attila the Stockbroker

Nigel wants to go to B&Q,
but there’s Isis fighters all round the bathroom department.
Nigel doesn’t like Isis fighters.

Bear in mind this is not a licence to copy that poet word for word; you should be responding to their work, updating it, making your own interpretation, &c.

English: Attila the Stockbroker, taken in the ...
English: Attila the Stockbroker, taken in the Cabaret Tent at the 2010 Glastonbury Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using a title

In the majority of cases, it’s all right to use a title, particularly if the word can be found in a dictionary. A quick look at Wikipedia offers a whole list of instances of the title Life.

However, be wary if the title is very distinctive, as it can seem as though you’re capitalising on the other person’s success. If you used the title Evidently Chickentown but your work was completely different, a lot of John Cooper Clarke fans would be unhappy.

Imitating a structure

Unless a structure is so closely associated with one particular poet, it’s fair game to emulate a structure as long as you’re saying your own thing. When I wrote Purple, I was going through a Luke Wright phase, so I borrowed the structure of Bloody Hell, It’s Barbara for the last section:

Excerpt from Purple

You’re always dressed in gingham checks
and Oakley specs, and round your neck
those headphones: Oh, I do love Beck.
Large as life, it’s you.

Here, the words are totally different from Wright’s, but would fit a similar metrical pattern.

General themes and ideas

Many people are familiar with the Allen Ginsberg poem Howl and the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The two works touch upon the same themes: disaffected youth, race relations, rebellion, &c. Both also make heavy use of repetition.

It is possible that Scott Heron was influenced by Ginsberg, as his work was written 15 years later, but despite the described similarities, there is no way that one could be accused of copying the other.

©

Open the front cover of most books and one of the first pages you’ll encounter contains paragraphs that begin something like:

  • First published in Great Britain in [year] by [publisher];
  • The right of [author name (s)] has been asserted by [him/her/them]…;
  • and All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted…

This legal text is effectively saying that the author and publisher, and/or anyone else involved in making the book, have created an original piece of work and that the reader is not permitted to do anything with it other than enjoy the text. The modern copyright system began with the Berne Convention in 1886 and has evolved over the intervening decades, and it’s now something we take for granted.

It was brought to my attention this week that there is a manifesto proposal by the Green Party to shorten copyright terms to a maximum of 14 years, a move that is causing anger among authors. In most cases, the current system guarantees copyright control for the rest of an author’s life, with control transferred to his or her estate for 70 years after death. If the 14-year proposal were already in operation, this would mean anything produced in the 20th century was now in the public domain.

Incidentally, following a change in the law last year, comedians are less likely to be sued successfully if they produce a parody version of an existing work.

With so much at stake, there’s a good reason to make it plain who owns the copyright. To this end, many emerging authors place a large copyright and/or © on their manuscript before sending it to a publisher, or on the cover of the book if it’s self-published.

There is no need to do this for two reasons:

  1. Making a big show of copyright is the mark of a nonprofessional. A publisher isn’t going to steal your manuscript unless they’re a dodgy outfit, and if you do self-publish a book, a discreet copyright notice inside will suffice. Make sure it’s drafted by a lawyer or someone who knows what they’re doing; don’t make up your own wording.
  2. In any case, copyright exists the moment a work is created, at least in the UK and in the USA. The purpose of the notice is merely an affirmation of the copyright.

If you have had something published in a book or in a magazine, make sure you’re receiving the appropriate money from it. Register with the Authors’ Lending and Copyright Society to check whether you could be paid secondary royalties from photocopying, scanning and digital copying. If your book is in a library, royalties are generated each time it’s borrowed, so consider joining the Public Lending Right scheme to collect any money owed.