Legal Issues Freelance Writers should know about and Understand

Working as a freelance writer can be challenging and rewarding in equal measure. However, given that writing is a creative endeavour, sometimes it is easy to forget the relatively “boring” business and legal side of things. However, knowing and understanding the areas of law that touch on writing for a living is crucial – both to protect the creator’s work, and to avoid any issues that may arise over the content produced.


This is perhaps the best known area of law for writers and will apply equally to the work the author creates, and the sources of information used to create that work.  Copyright arises the moment an original work is created, and is quite independent of any registration process – a work does not have to have the © symbol appended to it to benefit from copyright protection. How long the protection lasts will depend on the type of work created and the jurisdiction it is created under.

As such, when in doubt, assume it is copyrighted and that permission will be needed to use it. However, there is an exception called “fair use” which allows short, attributed excerpts from another’s work to be reproduced, provided that the excerpt doesn’t harm the commercial value of the original work and that use of the excerpt is limited to specific purposes (such as for parody, criticism, news reporting, research or educational purposes).

Special consideration should be given to “commissioned” work – i.e. when a work is written on demand, for a fee, and to a brief determined by the client. Copyright law clearly reserves rights to the writer, but clients may insist on assignment and ownership of copyright in the contract, so ensure it is read carefully before signing.

Another complicated area is where a work is produced during the course of employment. Generally, that work will belong to the employer, unless the terms of a writer’s employment contract stipulates otherwise. Technically, the copyright in any work that the writer produces during his hours of employment – even if that employment doesn’t involve writing and the work is produced during a lunch hour – will belong to the employer.


Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, but in terms of writing, it can drift uncomfortably close to plagiarism. Plagiarism includes representing someone else’s work as one’s own, copying parts of several works and combining them into one “new” work, or simply paraphrasing it in slightly different language. The end result in the same – the theft of someone else’s ideas, benefiting from their effort and research, and deceitfully representing it as original.

The best way to avoid plagiarism is the proper attribution of sources in the work being created, and only using similar articles as a jumping off point for fact-checking and research (instead of relying on it as the sole source of fact). Sources should be reliable and verifiable, coming from trusted and reputable sources.


Libel is defamation in written form (as apposed to slander, which is verbal). It is a false statement that is represented as truth, that either does harm, or is intended to do harm to a person’s character or reputation – such as a statement or allegation in print (and based on hearsay) that someone has committed a crime. Specific libel laws will differ from country to country, but in general, the only absolute defence to a libel claim is that the allegation is true. Other available defences are that publication is in the public interest, or is fair comment – i.e. a valid opinion based on fact that is genuinely held and not influenced by an intention to do harm.

The advent of the Internet has made it much easier for freelance writers to self-publish their work on user generated content sites. However, it also raises a number of additional questions given the multi-national nature of the web. Anonymous publication, or a pen name, is no guarantee of protection, as many ISPs will cooperate with authorities in an effort to insulate themselves against liability. Libel is an expensive business, and best avoided.


The freelance writer will own all rights in original work produced, but these rights can be fettered by the terms and conditions of submission to various web-sites, and in written contracts for any commissioned or purchased work. Helium is a good example. Content submitted to Helium is subject to an exclusivity period of one year from the date of publication. The “consideration”, or trade-off for surrendering this right to publish elsewhere is the revenue share or up-front payment the writer receives.

As such, writers should ensure they understand the restrictions being placed on their work when they enter into such agreements, as it will have an obvious impact on their ability to earn. The value in some content is the ability to cross-post it and utilise it elsewhere. Making minor edits or re-working the submission in slightly altered form is a risky proposition, with possible expulsion and/or legal action for breach of contract.