We all make mistakes, but some are really quite astonishing. In a recent issue of Writers’ Weekly there is an article about someone who submitted a manuscript for publication in which she had copied and pasted text messages — without anonymising them or changing them in any way.
Now, I’m no legal expert, but it seems to me to be a reasonable assumption that if someone sends you a text message, it is they who own the copyright, not you. In the UK, and as far as I know in the USA too, as well as other countries, as soon as someone writes something it is their copyright.
There’s also an ethical dimension. If I send you a text message, I don’t expect to discover it in the pages of your book, especially if I’m identified as the author of the message (or could be). There is, after all, an expectation of privacy.
I think any professional should have a broad understanding of their legal rights and obligations. Writers are not the exception to the rule: if you earn money from your writing, or aspire to, then you’re a professional, and so you should behave like one.
Given that we are writers and not lawyers, it’s difficult to keep up with, and understand, relevant legislation. But, as the old saying goes, ignorance is no excuse in the face of the law. There used to be a commercial on British television in which a car breaks down. The driver’s wife says “Do you know how to fix it?”, to which he replies, “No, but I know someone who does.” He is referring to the breakdown service to which he belongs.
In the same way, writers should (in my opinion) belong to an organisation that can keep on the legal straight and narrow. Ones that come to mind are the Authors’ Guild in the USA, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, and the UK’s Society of Authors. Each of these has resources for members and offer legal advice, such as on contracts. However, I should say that the only one I have direct experience of the Society of Authors, which is excellent, and worth the modest membership fee many times over.
Organisations such as these, and trade unions for writers, have eligibility criteria for joining. If you’re not eligible (yet), you can still find out out about the legal aspects of writing. There are books such as The Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book and Writers’ Markets, and numerous blogs. One of these, Writer Beware, mainly pertains to ways in which authors have been scammed, especially in the USA, but you can pick up useful other information from it too. Also, there are newsletters, such as Writers’ Weekly.
Obviously, the articles in blogs and newsletters cannot be regarded as legal advice, but they can set you off in the right direction, and perhaps cause you to think twice about doing something which could land you in hot water.
Please note that the links to books in this article are Amazon affiliate links.