Last post I discussed my view that many of the shrill cries of self-plagiarism are misplaced. But there are legal implications for writers copying their own works.
First and foremost is the concern with copyright.
When writers are slaving away in proverbial basements, pounding out insightful blog posts or that Great American Novel that has not yet seen the light of day, there is no concern about self-plagiarism. Copy yourself all you want.
But for paid writers - magazine writers, columnists, published authors - the issue is quite different.
If you have done a work for hire, or you have entered into a contract to publish your work, you have likely given up much, or perhaps all of your copyright interests.
As a general rule, when your work is published by someone else, or someone who paid you to produce it, it is no longer your own. Legally, your right to copy those words is no greater than a stranger who just happened upon them on the Internet.
This issue pops up with the self-plagiarism case of Jason Lehrer, the Wired and New Yorker columnist who was forced to resign after a plagiarism claim, on top of fabricated quotes in his latest book. The initial paragraphs of Lehrer's initial column for the New Yorker was lifter verbatim from an op-ed piece he did months earlier for the Wall Street Journal.
Now one first has to question Lehrer's judgment. It's not like people who read the New Yorker don't also read the Wall Street Journal. And its not like he didn't have fans who would seek out his columns in whatever publications they appeared.
But that aside, Lehrer's real guilt was violating copyright.
So when an author takes a previous work and seeks to use it - whether using it as a starting place to revisit the same issues, modifying it based on new information, or refining it based upon further thought - the author also needs to consider:
1. Do I still have the sole and exclusive copyright?
2. If not, is what I am doing fair use or does it violate the copyright interest held by someone else?
3. If it is likely in violation of the copyright, can I obtain permission from whoever holds the copyright?