Marketing for Small Businesses

Legally Protecting Your Self-Published Work

Original Copyright Genuine Patent Brand Graphic Concept

Original Copyright Genuine Patent Brand Graphic Concept

Before Still Alice was a movie that nabbed its star Julianne Moore a slew of awards, including an Oscar® for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, it was a book. In fact, it was a self-published book written by Lisa Genova and published through iUniverse. Genova said she decided to self-publish after going the traditional route with no success. Make no mistake. It took her nearly a year of selling herself as a writer and marketing her work to generate buzz, which ultimately led her to selling Still Alice to Simon & Schuster at auction for a nice six-figure sum.

Once a manuscript is in the hands of a traditional publishing house, they have the resources to take care of all the fine print. If you are going the self-publishing route, that burden falls on the author, so you want to make sure your work is protected and that you don’t lose out on any potential profits. There are three legal areas writers need to pay attention to when protecting their work: Copyright, Trademark, and ISBN.

Know Your Copy Rights

A copyright legally protects the content in newspapers, articles, books, music, plays, poetry, and movies—among many other things. But did you know that unlike patents and trademarks, a copyright exists automatically upon the creation of the work? The law states that your copyright originates automatically and immediately when the work is created (but you should still use the © symbol to remind everyone). Copyright protection lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years after the author’s death for works created after January 1, 1978 and needs no renewal. So, why it is beneficial to register your work? Because it:

  • Gives you a stronger argument in a copyright infringement case. With a clear record of proof of your publishing/registration date, it will help ensure your work is protected, and give you a better chance at winning.
  • Makes you work appear more professional.
  • Gives you peace of mind knowing that you have legally protected your work, and can also freely sell or distribute it.

To learn more about copyrights, including fees and infringement, visit

Leave Your Mark

A trademark (™) is a brand name that includes any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services.

Below are some of the benefits to federal trademark registration:

  • Constructive notice nationwide of the trademark owner’s claim.
  • Evidence of ownership of the trademark.
  • Jurisdiction of federal courts may be invoked.
  • Distinctive rather than merely descriptive or generic.
  • Registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

It is important to note that while trademark owners are able to trademark specific words, images, etc., it doesn’t mean they have a monopoly on their use. They just have the right to use their mark in commerce and to stop others who offer the same type of goods or services from using a confusingly similar mark. This is where “fair use” comes into play. If your narrative contains a trademark in a descriptive sense such as, “Jeb jumped on his Harley and headed out west.” (Fictional). Or, “After testing many vacuum cleaners, I found the Dyson vacuum to have the best suction.” (Nonfiction), the trademark is being used to describe goods or services in such a way that doesn’t suggest an association with those goods or services, which means it’s fair use.

Also, if you use someone’s trademark to express an opinion, or to inform or educate others, there’s no infringement. That’s because you’re not using it to sell goods or services. Your use is informational, not commercial.

Here are some examples of when you should NOT use a trademark in your writing:  

  • The work is a public domain image that includes a trademark (e.g., a building or a sign with a logo, slogan or product name, or even a shape)
  • You use a character from a public domain work, and the character is a trademark (e.g., Mickey Mouse)
  • You use a trademarked word, phrase, or logo as part of your product’s name or packaging
  • You use a work’s title, and the title is protected as a trademark (usually, a well-known title that the public associates with a specific work)

The bottom line: You don’t need permission for informational or editorial use, but for commercial use, get permission or take your chances. For more facts on trademarks, visit the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Take a Number

You’ve written your book, made sure you haven’t stepped on any trademarked toes, and have decided to copyright your masterpiece. Now, there’s just one more piece of the self-publishing puzzle to consider: Should you get an ISBN?

Wait. An IS-What?

An International Standard Book Number (ISBN) is a 13-digit number product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, and Internet retailers for ordering, listing, sales records, and stock control purposes. It also identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition, and format.

Deciding whether or not to get an ISBN is just like deciding to register a copyright—it depends on what you plan on doing with your work. For example, if you are just going to distribute your eBook on your website (as an instant download) then you don’t really need an ISBN. However, if you have plans to distribute your book via, a self-publishing site, or eventually in retail stores, then it is a good idea to get an ISBN number.

Applying for an ISBN is pretty straightforward. Start by using the resources provided by Bowker, which is the official U.S. ISBN Agency. You can find them on their website or the ISBN website. The cost for one ISBN is $125.00, plus a service fee to process the application. An ISBN should be assigned to each title or product, including any backlist or forthcoming titles. Each format or binding must have a separate ISBN (e.g., hardcover, paperbound, eBook format, etc.). Even a revised edition is required to have a new ISBN, because once assigned, an ISBN can never be reused. The ISBN is printed on the lower portion of the back cover of a book above the bar code and on the copyright page.

Once ISBNs have been assigned to your titles, you must submit your title information to the BowkerLINK™ Publisher Access System, which serves as the database of record for the ISBN Agency. Receiving your ISBN does NOT guarantee title listings. To ensure your titles get in the Books in Print database they need to be registered with BowkerLINK.

Remember, this is your creative work, so take the necessary steps to protect it!

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