05/07/2011
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Law for writers - co-writing a non-fiction book or novel? How to rescue your manuscript if things go

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Some years ago a friend and I collaborated on a non-fiction book, which sold quite well for a while. Unfortunately, it eventually went out of print, and I believe the publishers have also closed down. Now a new small press in my hometown have expressed an interest in republishing the book, but I’m not quite sure whether we can go ahead with it. Apart from the publishers possibly owning the rights, I have also lost touch with my co-author friend, and I can’t track her down anywhere. Is there anything I can do? It would be a shame to let the opportunity of publication go to waste.

Your situation highlights one of the main problems associated with joint ownership of copyright, in that the consent of both joint owners is required in order to deal with the work. A licence granted by a single co-owner will be an infringement of copyright.

It is not clear whether it is possible to distinguish between your input and your co-author’s input. If, for example, you had provided text and she had provided illustrations it may be possible to get new illustrations to replace them, in order to allow you to republish the work. However, if it is not possible to separate different elements in this way, you will not be able to republish the work without your friend’s agreement and accounting to her for her share of any royalties.

Even if you take the view that you will republish and retain a share of the royalties for her, she may object to the republication, perhaps because she has also found an opportunity to republish or simply because she does not want it to happen.

As you say, you will also need to ensure that the original publishers, or any third party which bought their business from them, do not retain any exclusive rights in the publication. It may be that the contract provides for rights to revert to you in this situation, but it is worthwhile checking that this is the case before proceeding with republication.

Our legal advice comes from Helen Goldthorpe, an associate solicitor specialising in intellectual property and information technology law at Irwin Mitchell LLP.

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