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About Writing Right: The Blog

IS RAPUNZLE COPYRIGHTED?

In effect, that's what someone wanted to know when he asked online if he could use characters already in existence, such as a kidnapped princess with long hair and healing powers. He received some answers that were predictably ridiculous. Here's how I responded.

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I see you've received a couple answers so far, both of which are dead wrong and horribly misleading. Your character can have long hair, can lower herself on it like on a ladder, and even have the same name. (Most likely—more about names below.)

 

Ideas cannot be copyrighted, or else all of humanity would be in court defending against copyright infringement continually. Names cannot be copyrighted for the same reason. Likewise common descriptive words such as blonde, brunette, and redhead. Ditto for commonly used nouns such as tire, train, and fart (which is a bit like what the responses you've received so far smell like. And likewise for verbs such as run, procrastinate, and litigate.

 

People who have no idea what copyright means and what the U.S. copyright laws are shouldn't be telling other people what's copyrightable and what isn't. Phrases taken from a published work word-for-word may be copyrighted (assuming the work isn't old enough to be in the public domain, in which case you can do whatever you want with that work, including republishing and even selling it yourself). Entire sentences from a published work not in the public domain are taboo to use subject to the previous exception. In other words, the form an author uses to express himself in words—and not the names, descriptions, titles, and individual words—can be copyrighted.

 

Now, with that said, you can use the name Mickey and you can use the word mouse in your own writing without any fear of repercussion from copyright violation. But you can't use the name "Mickey Mouse" because, although not copyrightable, Walt the Disney Person was smart enough to take out a trademark that prevents anyone else from using that moniker. How you find out what phrases are trademarked or in the public domain is another issue entirely. You can begin with an online search of the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office. You'll find them at THIS address:
 
https://www.uspto.gov/trademarks/search
 
You can also contact an attorney, but that will cost a few bucks. You may want to do that in the end, anyway, if you want to be certain something isn't trademarked before you use it in your own work and risk getting blowback from the trademark holder, which is more likely than not a large, well-heeled corporate entity with a large, well-heeled legal staff on retainer.

Just my thoughts on the matter. Before taking any actions that might result in your legal embroilment, you should check with an intellectual rights attorney or, if you're a member of a writing association such as The Authors Guild, run it by their legal department. That won't cost you anything more than the cost of annual dues for membership.

 

Meanwhile, smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," which runs at Substack.com weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, I do my best!)

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FORGING AHEAD WITH THAT NOVEL

A novice novelist asked online the other day how he can overcome the problems he faces whenevere he sits down to write. It seems that, despite all kinds of great ideas, he can never quite make it past the first chapter. Here's my advice, something that has worked for me for decades as well as for my students and mentored souls.

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Congratulations. You asked a relatively simple question to which you received a ton of convoluted, incorrect, or inappropriate responses. I think that's a Quora record!

 

Of course, you may want to hold off on rushing to the 'phone to tell dear old dad about your achievement just yet, since you're certainly no closer to receiving an answer that will actually help you to accomplish your goal than you were before—that is, writing a novel past the first chapter.

 

You were no closer, at least, until now. Read More 

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ON SIDONIE-GABRIELLE COLETTE

A reader named Graham Lindsey asked the other day why I thought the stories of Colette resonate so well more than half a century after the author's death. I was happy to respond.

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I think quite highly of the stories. Not so much for their literary scholarship as much as their unbridled ribaldry and shameless guile, which was quite shocking for the era, even in the Gay Nineties. I think even more highly of the author Colette who, as a child of the country, basked in innocence until realizing an entirely new life waited just beyond the confines of the hinterlands and prairies. By that time, she had already begun playing role-reversal games, fantasizing, trying on new hats, tinkering with gender-bending thoughts and activities, and writing.

 

Her husband, a vile and self-fulfilling prophecy named Henri Gauthier-Villars, who went by the name of Monsieur Willy, was the quintessential villain of his day. While forcing his considerably younger wife to toil away at creating titillating and often sexually explicit works, he published them under his own name, made a fortune promoting the "Colette" character's brand of everything under the sun (including cigarettes), and pushed his wife's sexual acquiescence to its limits and beyond. Read More 

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NOVEL, NOVELLA, OR WHAT THE HECK?

When someone recently asked what he should do with his 47,000-word "novel," first into the fray once again was a remarkably misinformed and misinforming would-be author with a ton of garbage novels in print. They, of course, make her the quintessential diseminator of authoritative information. Don't they? Here's what I told the writer-in-making.

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Well, the Queen of Wrong missed the mark yet again. Does anyone actually pay attention to her responses anymore? I hope not, because they can be damaging to a young writer's future. If not deadly. Here's how.

 

First, she says your novella (it's not long enough to be considered a novel) needs to go through "at least five edits." She can say this with all impunity because she's clairvoyant. No one else could know what skills you possess, the amount of determination you have, and the editing abilities you enjoy. Nor could anyone else understand just how much editing your opus will require—if any! Does it sing like a wren with every word that's read, or does it drop with a thud like a hollowed-out Wiffle Ball? Without her clairvoyant qualities, Queenie couldn't possibly know. Thank you, Uri Geller. Read More 

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