How to Avoid Copyright or Trademark Violations in Your Self Published Book

Three Parts:Screening Your WorkSeeking PermissionAnalyzing Fair Use

If your book is being published by an established publishing company, you'll have professionals screen your work and ensure all copyright and trademark permissions are in place before the book hits the shelves. However, if you self-publish you must do all this yourself. Fortunately, while you may have to look twice at things you never would have thought about before, it is fairly easy to avoid copyright or trademark violations in your self-published book. The main thing you need is a sharp eye.

Part 1
Screening Your Work

  1. Image titled Avoid Copyright or Trademark Violations in Your Self Published Book Step 1
    Look for brand names. Read through your book carefully and make note of any brand names that you've used. Generally, any brand name you use should be capitalized as a proper name. Depending on your usage, you may need to include a disclaimer on the copyright page of your book.[1]
    • For example, if you've written a fictional account of a character who works at Apple, you might want to include a disclaimer that your work is a work of fiction, and that various names used in your novel such as "iTunes" are intellectual property of Apple, and that Apple does not sponsor or endorse your work.
    • You can find general language for a disclaimer online, or by looking at the copyright page of a published book that makes liberal use of trademarked words or phrases.
    • You also should watch out for words that have slipped into normal speech as generic words but actually are brand names that should be capitalized. For example, "Band-Aid" is a trademark, as is "Kleenex," even though people routinely use those terms instead of "bandage" or "tissue."
    • When in doubt, a style guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook can help you. Just make sure you pick one and use it consistently.
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    Search the trademark database. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a searchable database of all trademarks with complete or pending registration available on its website. Use it to your advantage when you're screening your book for possible trademark violations.[2]
    • In addition to searching brand names that you might have used in your text, you also want to search for the title of your book as well as character names.
    • Some established writers as well as film and television companies frequently trademark the names of potential characters for future use, as well as characters that are already well known to prevent other companies from exploiting them.
    • Generally, if you find your title or the name of a character in the trademark database, you should just change yours. That's the easiest way to avoid a potential trademark violation.
  3. Image titled Avoid Copyright or Trademark Violations in Your Self Published Book Step 3
    Make note of any quotes. If you quoted a song or another work anywhere in your book, you often must get permission from the copyright holder to use it in your work. This is especially true for quoting song lyrics.[3]
    • Keep in mind you can always use song, movie, or book titles to reference those works. Any title is considered fair game and you don't need permission to use it.
    • However, if you're quoting the lyrics of a song or a couple lines of a poem, you typically must secure permission from the copyright owner.
    • Keep in mind that getting permission to use song lyrics in particular requires contacting the songwriter and his or her publisher, and typically is very expensive. Unless you can afford to spend thousands of dollars to quote a line from a song, you're probably better to leave it out.
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    Get contact information for creators of images. You should have permission for any images you've used, including your cover art. Even if you've purchased a stock photo, not all stock licenses cover the use of the photo for a book cover or anything that involves making copies and selling them.[4]
    • If you're using stock images, read the stock license very carefully. If you have questions regarding whether you can use the image in your book or on its cover, contact the company from which you licensed the photo.
    • Typically it will be cheaper and more efficient for you to work with an artist directly to create a book cover – but don't expect to get art for free. Working directly with an artist gives you the opportunity to work out a deal in which you pay the artist a little up front and then a small percentage of sales.
    • Don't think you can use an image just because you found it on the internet. If you want to use a found image, do everything you can to find the original creator of the work. But keep in mind that just because you can't find the creator, that doesn't mean you're in the clear to use the image without getting permission.
    • Your better option, if you've found an image you want to use but can't find its creator, is to not use the image at all.
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    Edit or write around what you can. If something is essential to your book, you will want to seek permission to use it. However, in most cases you can simply eliminate any language or trademarked terms that might cause problems.[5]
    • Generally, you should reserve the use of brand names for instances in which you intend to specifically refer to the product or service offered by a particular company. Don't use "Kleenex" where the word "tissue" would do.
    • Often you can conjure up the idea of something, such as a song, without quoting it directly. For example, if you have a scene in which a character is singing along with a particular song on the radio, you don't necessarily need to quote the particular lyrics – you can simply name the title of the song and say the character is singing along with it, or that she knows all the words by heart.
    • If you feel strongly that a certain trademarked word or phrase, or a copyrighted line, is essential to your book, ask yourself why. Get to the bottom of the significance of that particular word or phrase, and dig into the reasons you need it.
    • You also might want to ask yourself if using the trademarked or copyrighted material adds something to your story or description that couldn't be communicated if you used a substitute.
    • If you have friends or colleagues who you're using as test readers, have them read two versions of the paragraph or section in which the problematic material appears – one with the copyrighted or trademarked verbiage included, and one with something else substituted.
    • If your readers feel the text is stronger when it includes the material that potentially infringes on someone's copyright or trademark, you should consider seeking permission to use that work.

Part 2
Seeking Permission

  1. Image titled Avoid Copyright or Trademark Violations in Your Self Published Book Step 6
    Make a list of questionable uses. After you've screened your book and eliminated unnecessary words and phrases that potentially infringe someone's copyright or trademark, you may be left with a few potentially infringing uses that you want to keep in your work. For these, you typically must ask permission.[6]
    • Particularly if you have to send several letters, it may be easiest to create a basic spreadsheet. This way you can keep track of when you sent your letter seeking permission, when that letter was received, and your deadline for a response.
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    Format a letter seeking permission. If you need to seek permission from a copyright or trademark owner to use their work in your self-published book, send them a written letter. You can search online for templates to ensure you've covered everything necessary.[7][8]
    • Sending a written letter the old-fashioned way, rather than sending an email, is crucial for maintaining your paper trail. Potentially, an owner could simply claim they didn't get your letter and sue you for infringement the moment you released your book.
    • Before you send your letter, you have to know who owns the copyright or trademark in the work you want to use – and sometimes this is easier said than done.
    • Trademark is simpler, because if the trademark is registered you can find ownership information in the USPTO's database. If the trademark isn't registered, you don't need permission because there is no registered trademark to violate.
    • Copyright protection, however, exists regardless of whether the copyright is registered. Searching the U.S. Copyright Office's database is a good place to start, but you won't find ownership information if the copyright isn't registered.
    • If, for example, you found an image on the internet, start by contacting the owner of the website where you first found it. You also can conduct an image search to potentially locate its source.
    • Once you know to whom you're sending the letter, format it in traditional business letter format, and write in a succinct, professional tone.
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    Identify the intellectual property used. If the work you want to use has a title, use that. In the case of a trademark, describe it specifically and explain the context in which it is used. If you're quoting from copyrighted text, be specific about the portion you want to use and where and how it appears in your book.[9][10]
    • You also might consider including a copy of the page or pages in which the work appears as an attachment to your letter. This way the copyright owner can completely understand and evaluate the context within which you're using their work.
    • Keep in mind the interests of the copyright holder. They're not going to give you permission if they believe your use will damage the market for their work, or if they feel it disparages their name or image.
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    Explain your use and the rights you need. As succinctly as possible, tell the copyright owner what you are using, how you are using, and the scope of your project. This can be difficult with self-published books, particularly if you are using a print-on-demand service, but you need to make sure if the copyright owner grants you permission it will cover your actual use.[11]
    • If you're using a print-on-demand publishing service, you have no way of predicting how many copies of your book will be sold – so don't try. It may seem safe to say you won't sell more than 100,000 copies of your book, because you're thinking there's no way that will happen. But saying this limits the scope of your license. If you sell 100,001 copies, that last copy will include copyright or trademark violations.
    • You also shouldn't offer limits that you can't enforce or control. In most cases, you need the right to distribute worldwide, since many print-on-demand services make the product available to anyone in the world with an internet connection.
    • You don't necessarily need to use fancy legal jargon here. You can just say "I would like your permission to use the lyrics from your song in my self-published book, which will be printed and distributed online by POD Magic Self-Pub."
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    Provide a deadline for response. This portion of your letter is key if you want it to be legally enforceable even if you never receive a response from the copyright or trademark owner. It also means you don't have to delay publishing over worry about the issue still being up in the air.[12][13]
    • State that unless you hear from them within a week from the date of receipt of the letter, you will assume that they have no problem with you using their work as stated.
    • It's important to put the ball in their court. If they don't want you to use their work, they must contact you. If you don't hear from them by your deadline, you can consider yourself in the clear.
    • Giving them a week should be fine, but you may want to give them longer. Don't go more than two weeks, though – you don't want the question to be unresolved for too long.
    • Make sure you provide a preferred method of contact. If the copyright or trademark owner opts to call you, make sure any agreement you reach over the phone is memorialized in writing. You can send them a letter confirming the conversation.
    • Do not offer any money. With this initial letter, seek permission to use the trademarked or copyrighted material for free. If you offer money, the person may take it – or attempt to negotiate for more – when they would have given you permission for free if you'd started there.
  6. Image titled Avoid Copyright or Trademark Violations in Your Self Published Book Step 11
    Mail your letter. Once you've finished writing and proofread your letter, print it and sign it. Make a copy of the signed letter for your own records and keep it in a safe place – ideally with any other legal information or contracts you have related to your book.[14][15]
    • Use certified mail with returned receipt requested. This way you will get a notification when your letter is received and you'll know when the clock starts ticking on that deadline.
    • When you get your certified mail receipt back, keep it with your copy of the signed letter you sent.

Part 3
Analyzing Fair Use

  1. Image titled Avoid Copyright or Trademark Violations in Your Self Published Book Step 12
    Evaluate your use of the copyrighted work. While you should always seek permission to use copyrighted work in your self-published book, some uses may qualify for "fair use," a legal doctrine based on the First Amendment.[16]
    • Keep in mind that fair use only comes into play as a defense against infringement – meaning you would have to be sued first. For this reason, it's dangerous to rely on fair use simply as an excuse not to get permission to use a work.
    • Fair use only applies to copyrighted works, not to trademarked words or phrases. A trademark protects commercial value and commercial uses, and is independent of creative or artistic value.
    • The fair use doctrine is designed to protect uses for which the copyright owner would be unlikely to give permission, such as when you create a satire of a copyrighted work, or critique it. Fair use also protects scholarly and research uses that have profound social value that overrides the copyright owner's intellectual property interest.
    • Generally, your use has a strong likelihood of being considered fair use if it transforms the original copyrighted work or adds value to it by creating new understanding or meaning.
  2. Image titled Avoid Copyright or Trademark Violations in Your Self Published Book Step 13
    Determine what kind of work you're using. Certain types of work, such as non-fiction or factual works, have thinner protection against fair use than other types of work, such as purely creative works of fiction.[17]
    • No one can claim they hold a copyright in facts, so if the information you're using is factual information, fair use doesn't even come into play. You simply cite the source where you found the information, but you don't need permission to use it.
    • If you want to quote from unpublished work, you always should have permission from the copyright holder. Although publication is no longer required to enjoy full copyright protection, U.S. copyright law has a strong preference that the creator of a work should have the first opportunity to disseminate it to the public.
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    Compare the amount you used to the size of the work as a whole. Your fair use claim typically is stronger if you only used a relatively small portion of the copyrighted work within your own. However, how much is too much may depend on how important the part you took is to the work as a whole.[18]
    • If a small portion constitutes the heart of the work, a fair use argument typically falls flat. Depending on the work you're quoting or using, this could be a very small portion indeed.
    • This is especially true with song lyrics. The line you quote may be a small portion of the overall song, but if it happens to be a refrain that's repeated a half a dozen times throughout the song, you're going to have a hard time getting away with a fair use argument.
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    Consider how your use might affect the work's potential market. Copyright is at its core an economic right, allowing creators to profit off of their creations. Accordingly, uses that qualify as fair tend to have a relatively slight or marginal negative impact on the market for the original work.[19]
    • Think about this factor in terms of whether your readers would be more or less likely to purchase the copyrighted work after reading your self-published book.
    • If you have so blasted the original work that you turn readers away from it, you would potentially have a difficult time arguing your use was fair.
  5. Image titled Avoid Copyright or Trademark Violations in Your Self Published Book Step 16
    Consult an attorney. If you have questions about fair use, or are concerned about a problematic passage in your self-published book that you fear may violate someone's copyright or trademark, an intellectual property attorney may be able to answer your questions.[20]
    • Although you may have to pay a few hundred dollars to get a full analysis of your potential intellectual property issues, keep in mind that this amount pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to raise a defense to an infringement lawsuit.


  • Copyright and trademark infringement are not intent-based, so whether you intend to infringe the owner's rights is irrelevant. It is not enough to simply say certain words or images are not yours and infringement is not intended.[21]

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