Posted on December 17, 2020 at 9:00 AM by Guest Author

If you’ve decided to start a career as an author, it’s important to familiarize yourself with common legal issues for writers.

Learn which issues to avoid and why.  

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Why You Should Be Aware of Legal Issues for Writers 

When you sit down to write a book, you’re focused on telling a story or exploring a topic — not worried about the possibility of legal troubles.

After all, how many authors wind up in a courtroom because of their work? Not a ton, that’s true.

However, it’s because most are aware of common legal issues for writers, and they take care to avoid putting themselves at risk.    

Anytime you write a book — be it fiction or nonfiction — you should exercise caution. It’s not just about protecting your own work; it’s about respecting the work of other authors too.

Being mindful of rules, laws, and best practices only benefits you in the long run. More importantly, it’s what prevents you from having to face any number of negative consequences.         

For example...

Getting hit with a lawsuit 

No one wants to imagine getting hit with a lawsuit, especially when it involves a passion project. But the fact is litigation is a potential repercussion if you don’t give credit where credit is due.

In the event you infringe on someone else’s copyright/trademark or fail to cite a source, you could be drawn into a legal battle. 

Scrambling to fix a PR crisis 

This is typically a concern among more well-known authors, but it’s still something to keep in mind when first starting out.

It’s not uncommon to see news articles about one author taking legal action against another. And if you’re on the wrong side, you’ll likely struggle to change how the media views you.   

Breaking your readers’ trust 

Even if your misstep was accidental, it can still lead to the loss of your credibility and readers’ trust. This is often a concern with matters of plagiarism.

When fans discover an author they love has been accused of stealing someone else’s work, they’re let down. As a result, gaining back their trust can be nearly impossible. 

Receiving a hefty fine 

Some legal issues for writers don’t necessarily result in lawsuits but in hefty fines. If you aren’t careful, you could end up having to pay a penalty of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This is a financial hit no author wants to take.  

Losing the rights to your work 

When you put the time and effort into writing a book, you deserve to reap the rewards. However, if you haven’t taken the proper steps to protect your work, you could end up losing the rights.

Although it’s less of a concern among self-published authors, those who go the traditional publishing route need to be especially careful. 

5 Common Legal Issues for Writers 

To reiterate, the best way to start off your author career on the right foot (and avoid major setbacks) is to learn as much about the legal side of writing as you can.

That way, you’re in a better position to protect yourself and respect your fellow authors. 

So, without further ado, here are some of the most common legal issues for writers you should be aware of...

1) Copyright Infringement 

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, copyright infringement occurs when “a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

This type of violation can happen on both sides: You could potentially violate another creator’s copyright, or someone else could violate yours. In either case, it means one person has infringed upon another’s work.    

How to avoid: Before you start a new book, do some in-depth research to determine if the concept is original. If you want to use someone else’s material that falls outside of fair use, reach out to see if you can purchase a license.

To keep your own work from being pirated, register for formal copyright protection and set up an alert so you can be notified if someone is using your work without permission.    

2) Defamation 

Defamation is one of the biggest legal issues for writers of nonfiction, particularly memoirs. However, it can also be an issue for those who write fiction. So, it’s worth learning about defamation no matter where your writing falls.  

The act of defamation occurs when a person’s reputation is damaged because of a false statement made about them.

If someone can claim that your portrayal of them has hurt them financially or caused them emotional distress, you could be sued for libel, which is written defamation.

In order to win their case, the person making the claim would have to prove the following

  • A false statement, framed as factual, was made about them. 

  • You, as the author, were negligent or intended to hurt the individual.  

  • Damage occurred as a result of the defaming work. 

  • The work was published and read by third parties. 

How to avoid: First and foremost, you should always tell the truth when writing nonfiction.

If you write a memoir, get written permission from those you feature in your book and use caution when making certain claims.

Finally, for both fiction and nonfiction, it’s well worth including a disclaimer at the beginning of the book.  

3) Plagiarism 

Many authors get confused when it comes to plagiarism vs. copyright infringement.Ultimately, copyright infringement is a legal concern whereas plagiarism is an ethical one.

There’s a lot of overlap between the two. That said, not all cases of plagiarism are copyright infringements.

But when it comes down to it, plagiarism is something every author should avoid at all costs.

Plagiarism occurs when an author steals from another and tries to pass it off as their own, original work. 

Some examples include...

  • Copying large sections of text from an outside work

  • Rephrasing someone else’s ideas

  • Combining bits and pieces from different texts 

...without giving credit to the original source(s). 

Even failing to give all the details when a source is credited can land you in hot water. 

How to avoid: To make sure you don’t plagiarize accidentally, conduct thorough research to ensure your “original idea” is just that.

Consider running your text through a plagiarism checker to cover all your bases. And if you quote someone else, be sure to credit the source.

To protect your work against plagiarism, follow the same tips as you would to safeguard against copyright infringement. Moreover, only show your draft to a limited number of people.     

4) Contract Challenges

Make no mistake — contract challenges are among the most frustrating legal issues for writers.

Although you may opt out of working with an agent and choose to self-publish your book, it’s still important to understand how contract challenges can affect you.

The fact is any agreement you make with a third-party designer, editor, printer, etc., can have negative consequences if not handled properly. 

Contract challenges can take many forms. If expectations and responsibilities aren’t outlined clearly, you could wind up with missed deadlines or surprise fees.

Worse, a publishing contract with hidden clauses could leave you with little to no creative control over your work.  

How to avoid: First, do your due diligence before forming any partnership. If you decide to work with a literary agent, put the time and effort into selecting the right one.

And if you want to go the traditional publishing route, be sure to ask the right questions so you understand every aspect of your contract. Consulting a legal advisor is also strongly recommended before signing anything.

Furthermore, make sure you have a written agreement if you get outside help producing your book. 

5) Improper Tax Filing

Once you publish your first book and start to generate sales, it’s important that you don’t make the mistake of filing your taxes incorrectly.

Unfortunately, this is an issue many new authors (particularly self-published ones) overlook. And as a result, they either put themselves at risk of incurring penalties or don’t receive the refund they deserve. 

Though there’s more freedom to being a self-employed author, it introduces some unique tax considerations

Here are some things to consider:

  • What deductions you can make

  • What estimated tax you owe each quarter

  • What sales tax you may be responsible for

  • What self-employment tax you need to pay

  • What additional forms you need to complete 

How to avoid: Make sure to keep detailed records of your income and expenses. Also, set money aside throughout the year to be safe.

And to decrease the chances of filing incorrectly, enlist the help of a professional accountant come tax season. 


Although having a career as an author can be incredibly rewarding, it’s not without its challenges.

As highlighted above, potential legal issues for writers can range from copyright infringement to improper tax filing. And the consequences of breaking the law or making a mistake can be significant.

If you’re embarking on this new career path, be sure to familiarize yourself with these issues so you can navigate the writing world safely!  

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