Part 4: The Legal Stuff

The Definitive Guide To Self Publishing

The Law Of The Land

If you live in America, which I strongly suspect if you’re reading this, you benefit from many protections once you put an idea to paper. However…so does everyone else. Don’t be caught with your pants down when someone points out an infringement in your future. Be caught with your pants…up.


I will go over HOW to copyright your book in Part 6, but for now I’m going to explain WHAT a copyright is and what protections it gives you. To begin, below is the copyright law straight from the horse’s mouth:

Under the copyright law, the creator of the original expression in a work is its author. The author is also the owner of copyright unless there is a written agreement by which the author assigns the copyright to another person or entity, such as a publisher. In cases of works made for hire, the employer or commissioning party is considered to be the author.

What does this mean to you? Well, as soon as you write down your first sentence you own the copyright of that work. Your novel is yours. No one can tell you it’s not no matter how hard they try. That being said, a registered copyright is a great way to protect yourself from any discrepancies for up to two lifetimes. Here is a list of benefits:

  • Only costs $65
  • Work is protected for your entire life plus 70 years
  • You’ll gain an established public record (helpful if someone plagiarizes or wants to purchase rights to use your work)
  • Grants you (the copyright holder) the ability to sue in a federal court
  • You get an official document in the mail that says you own your hard work!

Last note on filing for copyright: it’s not essential, but I highly recommend it.

Using Music Lyrics

Probably the biggest bummer, but second-most asked question aside from copyrighting, is the use of music lyrics. Does your book take place in the 70s and you want to set the tone with “Brick House” by The Commodores? Or is your book a snapshot of the current zeitgeist and you want to quote The Weeknd’s “Starboy” to put the reader in the moment? Well, TOO BAD. 

In short, lyrics are off limits. Not completely off limits, but I’m telling you they are to save you from the headache of trying to pursue their usage. Big Music does not take kindly to people publishing their lyrics without their knowledge, and if they find out it could be disastrous to your bank account.

But Chris, what if these lyrics are essential to my novel? I hear what you’re saying. I’ve been there too. But trust me, the best course of action is to figure out a way to write your novel without them. One, it’s more creative since it will be entirely yours, and two, why give someone else the free publicity when they surely won’t return it in kind?

Hopefully most of you are now going back to omit your lyric usage, but for the stubborn ones still here, there is a way I will list below. Just remember, you are protected by copyright for your unique work and so too are the writers of these songs.

  • First, all works published before 1925 are in the public domain. Go crazy with those lyrics, but always double check their status.
  • You want something more modern? You need to hunt down the copyright owner. This is difficult at best. A lot of this information is not available online, even directly from the music producer’s/copyright owner’s website. Luckily, there are a couple of resources:

Just know that the application process is tedious, the wait time to hear back is extraneous, and the licensing fee you will have to pay is egregious. Here is my exact experience in querying “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King:

  • Found on Hal Leonard. 
  • Waited exactly 3 months
  • Was told it would cost $300 for the composition per 10,000 copies printed (not sold).


The last thing you’ll need to worry about is being mean. Don’t be mean.

Two terms you probably learned in high school civics are libel and slander. Since slander is based on “word of mouth”, you as an author needs to understand libel.

Libel according to Cornell’s Legal Information Institute:

Libel is a method of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, effigies, or any communication embodied in physical form that is injurious to a person’s reputation, exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injures a person in his/her business or profession.

There is a lot to be angry about in America right now (believe me, I know) so just be careful with how vicious your words are. If you want to learn more, this post from does a great job of breaking libel down.

Compos Mentis

Now that you are confident in your understanding of legal mumbo jumbo, let’s take that next step together as you begin Part 5 of my Definitive Guide To Self Publishing: Get Meta.

*Note: This is a living guide, which means I will consistently make updates and improvements as new technology and resources become available!