As a self-published author, you own the rights to your book. You are technically the publisher, and thus take legal responsibility over your work. Paul Rapp, an American lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights, sounds the alarm on copyright issues that self-published authors need to bear in mind before signing off on their manuscript.
He stresses that both self-published and traditionally published authors are not exempted from legal responsibilities. While traditional publishers have provisions for legal assessment and counseling, publishing agreements usually have an indemnification clause, which doesn’t hold the publisher accountable for copyright infringement or personal rights violations. It is therefore important for writers to seek legal advice as to what they can and cannot publish.
Because of the expansion of self-publishing, there are an increasing number of lawyers who will assess legal issues in a book and tell you how to address the problems for a fairly nominal fee.
The use of public domain works and other materials from copyrighted works
Rapp notes that you can use public domain images and texts without permissions or licenses. A work enters the public domain when its copyright expires or if the creator is already deceased for over 70 years. Your country may have different copyright laws, so it is best to check what rules apply there. For copyright term and the public domain in the US, check this link.
If an author receives a threatening letter about the use of a public domain work, it’s because institutions know from experience that if they threaten, many people will pay up. Usually a brief letter from an attorney, or just ignoring the threat altogether if it’s baldly frivolous, will be a proper response.
The amount of a published work that can be quoted
No absolute rule applies to the number of words you can quote. Rapp says that if the quote drives your narrative, if you are using an author’s quote in your argument, or if you are giving an opinion on an author’s quote, then it is considered fair use.
The publisher of the work you are quoting from may squawk, but it’s highly unlikely that they are going to do anything about it.
Portrayals of real people in fictional and non-fictional works
Your first amendment rights protect you from expressing your opinions on other people in your fictional or non-fictional work, especially if it’s about a famous person. Libelous writing, however, crosses the line. He also warns against defaming others to the point of violating their privacy.
This happens a lot in non-fiction books where the author portrays a non-famous person in a very unflattering way. Even if what the author says is true the person’s privacy rights have been violated … Again, if it’s a famous person and you are expressing your opinion and representing the truth fairly accurately, the first amendment would strongly protect your right to say what you want. The divide is famous vs. non-famous. And even if you make stuff up about a famous person, if it’s not something that’s believable, you can do it.
He cited Hustler magazine that published a satirical ad showing an evangelical pastor talking about having sex with his mother. The pastor sued the magazine and brought his case to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled against him, stating that no reasonable person would buy the ad’s mockery.
The importance of copyright registration
Finally, Rapp stresses the importance of copyrighting your book for greater protection against piracy.
Prior to publication, it’s a good idea to register the book with the federal Copyright Office. You own the copyright to the book as soon as you write it, but registration gives you greater protection and leverage should someone pirate your book.