Mob Rule and Other Rules for Authors

anger-18658_640This post is going to have a bit of a split personality. Two entirely different subjects with the flimsiest connection. Consider yourself forewarned.

The inspiration for this is a blog post from Nora Roberts who many of you will recognize as one of the most successful and prolific romance authors in the world. Those who don’t know that name might still be familiar with her pen name of J.D. Robb, also extremely successful. For those who don’t want to read her full post, I’ll give a quick summary. (If you’d prefer you can go read the whole thing. Just remember to come back here afterwards.)

Another author, unnamed in Ms Robert’s post, noticed that Ms. Roberts had a book with the same title. So, she did what anyone with a hair trigger temper and a persecution complex would do. She posted on social media, accusing Ms. Roberts of stealing from her. By the time Nora heard about this, pointed out to the other author that her theory had some major holes, one of the biggest being that Nora’s book had been published first, and the other author posted her retraction, the damage was done.

As these things are prone to do, word spread, and once something starts spreading, it’s hard to stop it. An internet mob, consisting of the other author’s fans, were attacking Ms. Roberts and spreading the word around the internet. There are people who will always believe Ms. Roberts stole a title from another, lesser known author and will think this was a serious, possibly illegal act.

The first part of this split personality post, beyond telling the story of what happened, is to point out what should be obvious, but often isn’t. If you’re an author or anyone in the position where you have a high-profile internet presence … really virtually any internet presence … be careful. If you haven’t had the experience of something you’ve said or done on the internet going viral, from experience I can tell you that it’s a crazy and stressful experience. That’s assuming that you’re “in the right,” innocent of any significant wrongdoing. If you’re perceived as having done something out of line, I can only assume the experience is more intense and doesn’t have an upside. So be careful out there. The more people who follow you on social media, the easier it is to have something like this happen. But really all it takes is to have one or two high profile people comment or share the right or wrong thing about you and if it catches people’s attention, it will spread through the internet like a wildfire on the California Coast.

The second purpose of this post is to point out a few things about copyright that you should always keep in mind.

A title of a book, song, or whatever isn’t copyrighted. If I want to call my upcoming series of legal thrillers The Firm, The Client, and The Pelican Brief, nobody can stop me or do anything about it after the fact. (Whether that would be a smart thing for me to do is another question.)

The big picture or plot of your book may seem original, but it’s not. Nor is that part copyrighted. Otherwise the first person to write a book chronicling the story of when a girl met a boy, stuff happened, and they lived happily-ever-after would have a gazillion dollar lawsuit against Harlequin. The words don’t have to be exact to your work, but it has to be pretty darn close to copying a significant portion of your work before it crosses the line.

If that other story is obviously satirizing your award-winning, best-selling story, it might cross the line into what would normally be considered copyright infringement, but by virtue of parodying or satirizing, it probably still gets a pass.

We’ve had a few good posts on copyright here at IU over the years. This one where Melinda Clayton tracked down a copyright attorney is especially good. Not quite as good, but one where I have a thing for the author, is this one.

If you really have been wronged, consult an attorney and make sure.  (We have a legal resource page that might help here.) Then whatever the attorney says, don’t do anything on social media that might backfire.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

17 thoughts on “Mob Rule and Other Rules for Authors”

  1. Sad but true. I’ve also heard of a similar mob reaction to some authors on a popular readers’ site, altho I have not documented it myself. Re: the “owning” of a title, when I got ready to publish my Ghost Walk, I checked Amazon and found a handful of books already with the same title. I thought long and hard about it, decided I still liked the title and wanted it, so I used it. I just decided I had to make my book good enough to stand out from the crowd. There are only so many words to go around; I think we can share.

    1. “Only so many words”, I like that Melissa. 🙂

      Titles are funny things. With so few words even a non-exact match could potentially get confused. Book title and author’s name will usually give a unique combination, but I’ll bet there are some exceptions to even that.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Michael.

      I’m not sure that a character is copyright. It’s the expression of an idea that a copyright covers. Depending on how unique the character is, how much the characters is described, and how someone else is using the character in another story (for example if it is satire or not) I think it could go either way. This is based on some quick research. Using another author’s character would be something I’d certainly be careful about doing, but I’m not sure even that is a bright line that can’t be crossed.

  2. If it can happen to Nora Roberts, it can happen to anyone. Presumptuous and arrogant on the part of the other author, to say the least.

    1. I think the false accusations are probably more likely for a bigger name like Nora. I don’t know who the other author was and haven’t attempted to figure it out since it doesn’t matter to learn the needed lessons from the incident, but I think we can safely say she’s not as big of a name. I think some who aren’t as successful like to think the reason for that is something wrong with the more successful author rather than the reality. (The reality might be the more successful author writes better books. And to be fair, luck plays a part too.)

      Thanks for the comment, Linda.

      1. The other author was a debut author who had a massive hit with that first book. The sequel (it’s a series) was eagerly awaited and there is a movie coming out. Suffice it to say that Ms Debut Author had a LOT of outraged followers ready to take up her cause. I think the fact that she is a new author, and only in her mid twenties, might explain why she didn’t realise titles weren’t covered by copyright. Although she didn’t actually claim breach of copyright. From reading the whole debacle I came away with the impression that she just thought Nora Roberts had behaved unethically, NOT that she thought Roberts had breached copyright. Her relative newness on the literary scene combined with her youth (as a grouchy old romance author of 55 I can say that!) would certainly explain her idiocy in taking to social media over this. I really hope she learned something from this, because her book does sound fabulous, I think she has something very valuable to contribute.

  3. I wish I had the problem of being famous enough to be accused of stealing a title from somebody who doesn’t know that titles aren’t copyrightable and thus can’t actually be stolen. I don’t worry too much about things like that. I only worry about making sure I can’t reasonably be sued. There are so many . . . ummm . . . ill-informed people in the world that it’s virtually impossible to avoid somebody flinging an egg or two at you from time to time. Unless you want to hide yourself in a deep, dark cave, maybe, and if you do that, you’ll succumb to vitamin D deficiency, so what’s the point?

  4. I’m surprised the author didn’t take a few minutes to do a little research on the title she intended to use. I’ve done that for all my books, and tried to avoid duplicating a title except with one book, which was not a book title but a song (actually, TWO songs) and a songbook. Not surprisingly, the word “song” appears in that title. Even as a newbie author I learned somewhere that titles aren’t copyrighted. I’m also surprised she took to social media to complain about Nora Roberts “stealing” her title. Too bad she didn’t do a little more checking about the way things work before getting all tipped over.

  5. I was surprised to read this. Even as a rookie author five years ago I did some research on the titles I chose, understanding that titles cannot be copyrighted. Over nine books I’ve attempted to avoid duplicating a title in all cases except one. I liked the title I wanted to use even though it was the name of two songs and a songbook. (Yes, the word “song” is part of the title.) I’m even more surprised about the social media battle which followed. What a waste of time and energy.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Susan. I agree, just a little research and she’d have realized she had no reason to complain. I’m often flabbergasted by what other people do, especially when they react to something without thinking. Of course I also, in retrospect, surprise myself sometimes with the stupid things I do. Please don’t tell anyone that. 🙂

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