Dear Author Enablers,
I recently read a biography copyrighted 1965 which would make a great screenplay. Do I need to contact the author/publisher regarding “use of material” rights?
Joan Bryant
Island Lake, Illinois

You should make every reasonable effort to contact the publisher and/or the author to get rights to use this material for your screenplay. If you have trouble tracking down the appropriate people, we suggest you consult a lawyer with expertise in intellectual property issues.

When we blogged about this topic (on our Author Enablers blog at, the thoughtful and wise commenter “penshark” had more to say: “If the biography is 35 years old, it almost certainly continues to be protected by copyright. You legally must attempt to contact the copyright holder, who is probably the author. The publisher may be able to help with the tracking. What may also help is that it appears, from the dating you mention, that the book was published and copyrighted when registration was still required in the U.S. (in other words, before 1978). That means there may be information available through the U.S. Copyright Office on who holds the rights. A really useful chart for copyright terms can be found here.” Thanks, penshark, whoever you are.

Dear Author Enablers,
My actress friend wants to know if you can copyright a book idea.
Susan Berston
San Francisco, California

The short answer is no. A book, once completed, can be copyrighted exactly as written, but you cannot copyright the idea for the book.

It’s easy for new writers to get hung up on this question, but we think this concern is something of a red herring. There is so much more to successfully publishing a book than the concept, however original that concept may be. For most authors, keeping your idea a secret is not the primary issue. You’re better off focusing on developing a good proposal, building your platform and writing an engaging story.

We’ve seen many instances of several books coming out at the same time on the same subject, and this is more a reflection of the cultural zeitgeist than plagiarism. Believe it or not, this occurrence can work to a beginning author’s advantage. Writers who are not well-known are more likely to get reviewed (or asked to be on panels, etc.) along with others whose work covers similar subject matter. So start writing and let your little light shine.

Dear Author Enablers,
I am a playwright and I am staring at a play publishing agreement with a big publishing company for my short play book of monologues. I’m happy someone wants to publish it, but I’m not very happy with the 10 percent royalty.
I know this is different from a novel or short story book, yet it is not that much different.
Lynne Elson
Playwright and Teacher

Our understanding is that a 10 percent royalty is pretty much in the ballpark for big publishing company contracts. You may be able to negotiate a different arrangement, but it will probably involve a buyback from you of a certain number of your books. In other words, you would agree to buy a significant quantity of the books in exchange for getting a higher royalty. Of course, we don’t know if this is an arrangement that would be of interest to your publisher.

Aside from the royalty percentage, there are other things you’ll want to look out for if you go ahead with the deal: What rights are you selling and for how long? Is there a commitment to a marketing and publicity budget? How many copies of the finished book will you, the author, get? If you have representation, these questions can be asked (and answered) by your agent. If you’re going it alone, we suggest talking to a literary agent or lawyer before putting your signature on the dotted line.

With more than 25 years of experience, Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Sam Barry have the inside scoop on writing and publishing; their new book on the subject is scheduled for release later this year. Aspiring authors can email questions (along with their name and hometown) or visit the Author Enablers blog.

comments powered by Disqus