In Sussex there lives a famous folk-singing family called the Coppers. One of its senior members is Bob Copper, who was recorded talking about his father Jimmy, and the deep sadness he felt about the “'ouses, 'ouses, 'ouses,” that continue to spring up on once beautiful downland. ‘It makes me prostrate with dismal,’ he lamented.
If there’s one thing that’s made me prostrate with dismal whilst working on Project Lionel, it’s the labyrinth of copyright. There isn’t anything else that left me so anxious or confused and there were points when I wished I’d just kept writing for an immediate family audience, rather than aim for commercial publication. As a first-time author you’re working on your wits and tenacity and if you’re lucky, you might make a few friends along the way who can offer advice. But the biggest thing I learned is that there are no firm guidelines and unless you have unlimited time and money, the amount of words you put in the text that aren’t yours will depend on how strong your nerve is. However much confident friends and family reassured me, I was deeply uncomfortable about taking any liberties with a commercially published book.
One thing I wish I’d done from the beginning, was to check copyright on every direct quote I wanted to use as I was going along, rather than waiting until the book was essentially written. This would have taken AGES but I’d still rather have done it in my own time without pressure, in the knowledge that even if I decided not to use them, I’d still have the peace of mind.
An issue with Great War aviation is that so many of the key texts were from publishers who no longer exist, or authors whose origins were so murky that it was hard to work out where copyright was due. I found it astonishingly difficult to establish even the most basic of rights for the National Archives, without having to do a couple of days research on the internet. There are also some differences between using images as opposed to text – you’re more likely to have to shell out for pictures but often the advice on archival sites was unclear. Making personal contact with archive staff (and pointing out that you’re unlikely to make a lot of money from publication) was always a good option, but when you’re potentially hundreds of miles away from some of them, that’s not always an option.
Cost was a huge drawback. There was nothing in my publishing contract to help cover copyright fees. As a first-time author, grateful to have landed a deal in the first place, I didn’t question that. A family friend who’s a literary agent had been kind enough to check it for me and as she hadn’t questioned it either, I accepted it.
Although I was lucky enough to have a modest advance, it didn’t last long once I’d covered a couple of necessary additional research trips and paid for a handful of images. One publisher charged me nearly £200 for using 650 words of one fairly obscure book. As a soon-to-be published author myself I absolutely understand the need for copyright but in many cases requests (and charges) don’t go to the author but the publisher, and the whole process I found to be a bit brutal and impersonal. A simple thank you and acknowledgement that you’re potentially providing free publicity would have been nice.
I hadn’t expected to get a publishing deal so quickly and I knew the timescale for establishing copyright for Morris’s diary was going to be much shorter than I had anticipated, so I got in touch with the RAF Museum as soon as negotiations began with Pen and Sword. As an ‘orphan work’ i.e. one which had no known copyright holder, there were complications. In the end it took nearly five months to sort out. Using only 250 words of direct quotes - the ‘fair usage’ benchmark - from such a key primary source would have removed Morris’s own words in a way that would have sucked the life out of the book. But it was a nightmare scenario I had to contemplate more than once.
It was a stressful business, but I guess one that you just have to go through for the first time to know better the second. The experience has certainly been incredibly valuable and God knows, it’s been a nice problem to have! The Society of Authors provides excellent advice – and I was lucky enough to be eligible to join, but with so many other things to have to pay for to get to the book to the stage of being ready for publication, I decided I just couldn’t afford it.
Here are some of the more useful resources I found:
I’d be interested to hear from anyone else about their experiences of getting to grips with copyright.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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