Any writer or editor not concerned about copyright and libel ought to be. While the laws governing copyright are more straightforward than those regarding libel, disregarding either can land a writer or publication in a lot of hot water. Very hot. While the authors of The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook
state outright that their guide should not take the place of an attorney, they explain copyright and libel issues in great detail, so that, at the very least, you'll know when to be on the alert. Copyright is relatively simple. "If you intend to use someone's copyrighted work," say Jassin and Schechter, "unless the use is considered a fair use, you must obtain that person's written permission." Of course, "fair use" gets tricky. One court determined that the Moral Majority's reproduction of a full ad from Hustler
magazine was a fair use, while another ruled that The Nation
's reproduction of 300 words from President Ford's 20,000-word unpublished memoirs was not.
Libel is more complicated. Each state (and the District of Columbia) has its own libel laws. And, no, fiction is not exempt, even if you've changed the name and hair color of an otherwise identifiable person. "The best defense to libel," say the authors, "is verifiable truth." Included: detailed checklists--concerning fair use, copyright protection, copyright permission, libel, and "media perils" insurance--and sample forms for requesting permissions, obtaining releases, summarizing permissions, and writing libel disclaimers. --Jane Steinberg
This manual allays a fear among publishing, broadcast, and film folk: getting sued. Copyright infringement is a manageable risk, if one understands the fair use doctrine and the procedures for acquiring and buying the right to reproduce material others have created. Both authors are lawyers, with book publishing experience in Jassin's case, which inform their practical tips about permissions. Often one needn't even request permission (advice endorsed by this former permissions clerk, whose favorite office appliance was the "fair use" rubber stamp), because such material can be classified as falling within public domain laws by comparing copyright dates with the two copyright acts (of 1909 and 1976) that govern them. But in doubt one should obtain permission, for which this book provides sample letters and addresses. Libel is a more dangerous animal, as can be attested by anyone threatened with a defamation suit. The authors define the legal nuances of libel and urge using care and caution when writing about public figures--and calling a lawyer when a nasty letter arrives. Gilbert Taylor