Permission Slip

Stay on the right side of the law by getting permission before you reprint articles.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the February 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Q: I would like to start a health and nutrition magazine. In it, I hope to use existing articles from books and magazines, similar to what Reader's Digest does. However, I don't know if this is considered plagiarism, and I don't want to do anything illegal.

Name Withheld

A: Henry M. Bissell is an intellectual property attorney in Los Angeles who has operated his own private law practice since 1968:

"Plagiarism" is a rather nasty word, but to answer your question, yes, reprinting copyrighted works without permission constitutes plagiarism and is encompassed by what you mentioned. The legal term for this is "copyright infringement." It is to be avoided at all costs because the law provides for severe penalties in cases of copyright infringement, from criminal penalties to a fine, even to imprisonment. Usually, these matters are pursued as a civil lawsuit by the copyright owner against the accused infringer. Any damages awarded by the court to the copyright owner can be quite substantial and may include attorney's fees and the like.

Copyright law comes under federal jurisdiction, so enforcement can only proceed in the federal courts. For a suit to be filed, the copyright must be registered with the federal government. Copyright law protects a number of categories of "works," including the literary works you referred to in your question.

Not all works are copyrighted, and it's sometimes difficult to determine which ones are. Prior to 1978, a copyright notice was required to be prominently displayed on any copyrighted work when published. If the notice was not on the work, the work became part of the public domain. From 1978 to 1989, the law still required a notice, but if it was inadvertently left off, the omission was not fatal as long as an effort was made to put the notice on later published copies of the work. Since 1989, the notice has not been required, which makes it impossible to tell if a work is copyrighted or not. To be on the safe side, always assume the work is copyrighted.

As a general rule, magazine publishers are more likely to allow republication than book publishers. Obtaining permission in advance is essential. Reader's Digest follows this policy and offers their standard fee, which is confidential. If permission is not granted, they do not publish the article.

To obtain permission to reprint articles in your magazine, you need to contact the publisher of each article you wish to reprint. I suggest initially contacting the publisher by phone to find out the specific person or department to contact to determine the general terms and conditions under which reprint permission will be granted. Ask for a copy of the publisher's reprint permission form (if it has one), and follow up with a letter specifying exactly which articles you want to reprint.

Once permission has been granted, your publication will have to carry an acknowledgement of the source of the reprinted article. Most likely, the publisher will specify exactly how it wants you to do this. If it doesn't, you should use the following acknowledgement: Reprinted with permission from [magazine title and date], published by [publisher's name and address].

Always be certain you have received the publisher's permission in writing before you publish any reprint. Keep the document in a safe place because you never know if you will be asked to produce it later.

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