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Legal Terms for Writers

Definitions Every Writer Should Know

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So, you think as a writer you need to pay attention only to things such as copyright and plagiarism? Not so. There are a whole handful of legal terms that every writer should study up on. Let’s take a look. Caveat: the writer is a writer, not a lawyer. Be sure to consult resources specific to your situation.

Copyright: Wikipedia’s most basic definition is “the right to copy”- and, you, as the writer, hold that right until you give it or sell it. That’s right, you hold it- automatically. There’s no need to specifically register the copyright of your published work. Once you get it onto “paper,” you own it.

Trademark: Trademark differs from copyright and patent by the nature of the thing it protects. Whereas a copyright protects a piece of work that you’ve created, a trademark protects a particular way of expression, such as symbols or coinages.

Patent: Again, this differs from trademark or copyright in the product it protects- a patent protects an invention or discovery (per the U.S. Copyright Office).

Plagiarism: This term refers to using another author’s writing or ideas as ones own. Enterprising college students often ask how one can truly think of a new idea, especially in well-explored humanities areas such as literary criticism. It is important to note that different genres and different fields require different sorts of citation of ideas. It is often difficult to trace one’s process of idea-formation, often along a long road of several different sources, days or weeks. However, it is of the utmost importance to try to accomplish this task- to cover your own interests, if nothing else. Writers should attempt to explain the main points of this process, with citations appropriate to their medium. Of course, more rigorous mediums need more rigorous citations.

Defamation/Libel: Here’s where writers need to tread carefully. By publicly writing falsehoods in order to damage another’s reputation, we put ourselves at the mercy of civil suits. In this age of intense internet use, nothing is anonymous- not blog comments, not journal entries- nothing. Intentionally writing public falsehoods about another person or another person’s business entity may end us up in civil court- especially if such falsehoods are fashioned to make another lose business, a job or a client. This loss will qualify the offense as being “with malice.” Interesting information on “cyber libel” can be found at Cyber Libel.com or this page out of Stanford’s web space.

Slander: Included here in order to differ it from defamation. Slander is spoken defamation (per Google's "Define".)

Sole Proprietorship: Many small, home-based businesses are, by default, a sole proprietorship (at least in the eyes of the tax man), so this term is included for those running their biz-tech writing endeavors as a small business. Some states or even smaller municipalities will ask a sole proprietorship to register locally, while others simply operate with absolutely no legal paperwork until a 1099 finds its way to their door.

LLC/S-Corp/C-Corp/LLP: These are any one of a number of options that a biz-tech writer can elect to take his/her small company to the next level by incorporating. One of the best sources of information for those who want to go in that direction is About Small Business.

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