I know, I know. Copyright is misspelled. But that is intentional because today we are going to discuss your right to copy certain aspects of other people’s writing. You heard right. I don’t mean plagiarizing; rather, duplicating similar things. For instance, titles. Say you came up with an awesome title for your book and discover someone is using it. Titles do not fall under copyright law. Besides, no matter how hard you look it is inevitable that someone else has used or will use that same title. All you can do is hope yours does not get confused with theirs. If it is a different genre you will be in better shape since the book’s focus is not the same. This was not so big an issue pre-Internet when the likelihood of someone finding both books next to each other on a bookshelf was rare since books were shelved by author. But now, as with sites like amazon, the book titles can be searched in alphabetical order and your book will show up right next to ‘that other book.’ That is why I make a practice of typing my planned title in Google and seeing what pops up. Then I go to amazon and B&N to do the same thing. Then I go to Books In Print. After all that, if I don’t find my title I’m good.
But there will be times when your title is not only very similar but the contents are as well. As in the case of my new book on cooking, The Real Book on How to Cook. There are a few other books out there with ‘how to cook’ in the title but that does not bother me since my book title is not exactly like the others, and it’s a known fact that cookbooks by nature are all basically the same, so there are bound to be similarities. My book does not contain recipes, while most others with my title do. My book is a primer for brand new cooks and most do not focus on the newbie. My book also provides illustrations of the tools you need to cook while most of these books illustrate the final result. Some also illustrate techniques. My book provides tips my mother passed down to me, along with advice from cooks I interviewed. That is not in any other book but mine. No matter, in a genre like cooking it is almost impossible to provide anything earth shattering-ly (is that a word?) new.
Another area that you can ‘copy’ is quotes. Free quotes are floating around everywhere and there is a large chance if you use one it will be found in another work. That also goes for ‘sayings’ that just about everyone has copied (otherwise why would they be called sayings?). I have even used phrases from old, somewhat obscure movies in my work and did not worry about copyright. For example, if one of your characters says, ‘may the force be with you.’ that is OK. It is not under copyright. Actually by now it’s also considered a saying. But really, you should avoid being corny or using too much slang or well-known expressions because you are supposed to be creating your own style. Even so, such things are not outlawed.
The things you need to be careful of are song lyrics, quotes from news services, as well as outright lifting material from other works. All this is copyrighted material.
The best rule of thumb is to do your homework, be careful, then just pour out your passion and don’t worry what others are doing. After all, there is room for us all.