Law and Authors: A legal handbook for writers

Jacqueline D. Lipton (University of California Press, 2020), 272pp, £70
ISBN 978 0 52 030181 8

Reviewed by Hannah McCall

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Jacqueline D. Lipton is a professor of law who also happens to be a literary agent, putting her in an ideal position to guide writers and editors through the ‘legal landscape of the contemporary publishing industry’, as the book’s blurb puts it. She has experience at doing this – Lipton writes the ‘On the Books’ column for the short-fiction magazine Luna Station Quarterly.

Let’s start with what this book is not. Law and Authors is not a replacement for taking proper legal advice. Nor is it focused on law in the United Kingdom. If you are looking for guidance that focuses on legal issues in UK publishing, this book is probably not going to be for you.

You may be disappointed if you turn to Law and Authors for clear-cut, definitive answers. Lipton doesn’t do the reader the disservice of pretending there is much certainty to be found. The book reflects that there are many areas that are open to interpretation – that is the nature of much of the law in this area, especially in the United States of America. It is often ultimately up to the author (or their publisher, if they have one) to base their approach on careful consideration and their own judgement. (But Lipton does provide a guide to how to make those judgements and when to seek help from legal professionals.)

Now let’s look at what it is. This is an accessible and engagingly written exploration of publishing law. Lipton is a warm and friendly guide to a myriad of potential legal issues an author may face (and that their editor may be called upon to alert them to). And while Law and Authors focuses on law in the US, it does touch on law in other countries (predominantly the UK and within the European Union) when there are significant differences.

Interpretation of the law can be hard to understand, but Lipton casts a practised legal eye over a variety of case studies, and some hypothetical demonstrations, to show the reader how the law was or could be interpreted. There are some interesting case studies included, many of which will ring bells for those who have been keeping an eye on publishing news (particularly within the independent author community).

The book starts with an in-depth exploration of copyright. That’s often the big issue for authors, and copyright infringement is something many editors will find themselves having to caution authors about. It is only right, then, that Lipton takes plenty of space to deal with it – five chapters from copyright basics to the specifics of fair use. The author doesn’t presume knowledge here, and she takes care to explain the concepts and possible consequences. The handbook continues with agent and publishing house contracts, contracts specific to self-publishing, trademarks, privacy law and defamation law. It also includes discussion on potential marketing and social media pitfalls and the use of images and artwork before wrapping up with pointers on how and when to look for additional help.

There’s high demand from authors – independent authors in particular – for explanations and guidance on copyright, and Law and Authors is a good resource to help satisfy that demand. Editors, of fiction and non-fiction, may find it a useful primer on what is sometimes a complex topic.

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