Thursday, December 9, 2010

Lawyers Reading Books?! What Happens in the Legal Department?

A few years ago I volunteered at ThinkCollege and Career Center, and one Saturday a smart young girl at the Center was asking me about publishing. She sheepishly admitted that she wasn't sure if she wanted to go into publishing, or be a lawyer instead. "Instead?" I asked, "Why not both? You know, publishing has lawyers, too!" She was so happy! Nothing a teenager likes more than not having to make a decision.

I took a class at NYU on Publishing Law, and it was fascinating. Here is the current class description:
Every publishing professional needs to understand the basics of publishing law in this litigious era. Editors must know when to flag content as potentially libelous and all employees in media industries must have a knowledge of copyright, privacy, intellectual property and other important legal issues. In this course, our faculty of experienced lawyers in the publishing industry presents the key concepts through real-world examples, case studies and presentations from guest speakers. Students will explore legal issues in print and on the Web as blogging and sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube create a wide range of new legal and ethical issues. The course will also provide an introduction to contracts and contract negotiation.

When I took the class, nearly 10 years ago, naturally there was no mention of blogging or Facebook or Twitter, not obviously those are all issues now. But they still primarily fall under one of the two largest areas publishing lawyers deal with: copyright infringement. For instance, when a large excerpt from Sarah Palin's new book was posted online by Gawker, the posters claimed it was legally fine due to "fair use." Well they lost and HarperCollins won, so you can deduce their theory wasn't too accurate. Fair use means you can use a SMALL part of a written work - with credit - without permission. And it's for critical use. So a reviewer can quote a few lines from a book. But it doesn't mean you can quote a large part, or quote it just to quote it, and not for critical reason. It can get tricky if, for instance, you're working on a book about a singer/songwriter and need to quote lyrics. They can't comprise "a significant portion" so the shorter the song, the shorter the allowable quote.

The other most common type of law practiced at publishing houses is contract law. The really fascinating part of the class involved the professor telling us about various celebrities who were unable to produce either any manuscript, or an "acceptable" manuscript in a reasonable time frame (yes all contracts have a delivery date but publishers aren't hard-nose about it - unless they want to get out of the deal. I've seen them extended for several years fairly frequently.) Even celebrities with ghost writers are sometimes unable to produce a book that anyone will buy. Also some committed pretty blatant copyright infringement by lifting large sections wholesale from other books. Naturally, the professor couldn't give us details about who these celebs were, but through a series of hints, we did suss out a couple that were amusing. When an author can't produce an acceptable manuscript, not only will the publisher not publish the book, the but author will need to repay any advances paid out so far.

Other potential legal issues that arise include libel, fraud (a la James Frey), copyright and permission (quoting and using photos), and also if a book is published about the FBI, CIA, or any other governmental organization, they often have their employees sign contracts allowing them to vet the book and redact any parts they deem unsuitable for publication.

As an editorial assistant, we would do legal reads on our travel books every fall before the new editions came out. We had to flag anything iffy for the lawyers to look at. Such as, you can't say a neighborhood is safe, because if a traveler is attacked there they can sure. You also can't say an establishment is "skanky" or "gross" for libel reasons, although you can say things that are provable and specific, such as that it is unclean and the rooms are small and unheated. You can't say it's okay to jump over a fence onto private property to go see a cool view. You can't advise people how to sneak illegals drugs into or out of a country. Basically, you need to be sure you're following local laws, and also not opening the publishing house to lawsuits. This was a pretty interesting task (plus it paid overtime! Woo hoo!)
So all you aspiring authors out there who also love books, don't despair! You can do everything you want to do. The legal department of publishing houses are pretty decently paid, fairly quiet, small (about 6 people even for the biggest houses. If they have a major lawsuit, they call in the law firm they have on retainer.) And while it's a very under-the-radar area of the book business, it's safe to say it's crucial.


Rebecca Chapman said...

That was fascinating. Thanks for posting this. I really enjoyed contract law when I was stuudying - it is incredible what you can do with only a few words - and how you word them. I often wonder whether I can use my legal skills in a publishing environment and one of these days I will look into what jobs are gonig out here.

Christy said...

Interesting post! I laugh whenever I see youtube posters saying things like "No copyright infringement intended" as if that protects them somehow. The job editing the travel books sounds cool.