Monday, August 27, 2018

The Lowdown on Copyrights, Trademarks and Patents

In light of the recent brouhaha over “cockygate” it’s time for a little rundown on the differences between copyrights, trademarks, and patents, and how they pertain to writers.

What’s a copyright?
Copyright is legal protection for works of authorship. For the written word it covers such things as fiction and nonfiction in all lengths, magazine and newspaper articles, even computer software, manuals, catalogs, brochures, and compiled information like databases. It can also cover dramatic works, motion pictures, audiovisual and sound recordings. Copyright law doesn’t protect ideas, facts, inventions, processes, systems of operations, words, names, symbols or proprietary information, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. A book title can’t be copyrighted. A single word can only be copyrighted in context. You can’t copyright the word “amazon”, but you can form a company called Amazon and copyright the word in a particular font to use for the logo. Doing this forms a trademark.

How do you get a copyright?

Write stuff. Copyright protection is automatic
the moment your work has tangible form. Whether you write longhand, use a computer, or dictate your work into a recorder, you have copyright protection. Only original works can be copyrighted, so, sorry, that fifteen century treatise on milk pox by an anonymous friar can’t be offered up on Amazon under your own name. This doesn’t mean your idea has to be original. There are plenty of updated versions of Frankenstein floating around that use the basic premise of the tale: mad scientist creates a monster that eventually runs amok and destroys him. Even if Mary Shelley wanted to complain, she couldn’t.

Only works published before March 1, 1989 need a formal copyright application. Nowadays, nothing is necessary, but a self-published author can place something like Copyright©2018 by L. A. Kelley in the front matter. It functions as a subtle reminder to others that this is mine, write your own stuff.

What’s the difference between that and a trademark?
Most people get trademark and copyright confused. Trademarks are words, names and symbols used to identify goods and services. A trademark is designed to protect a brand so consumers don’t confuse one similar product with another. You don’t trademark a book series title unless you can prove that the title is part of your specific brand. In the case of “cockygate” the author registered for and received a trademark on the word “cocky” written in an open-access font. Soon evidence appeared the trademark should never have been granted as the Patent and Trademark Office didn’t have the full details of the application. After months of outrage from the writing community and numerous lawsuits the author was told to stick her trademark where the sun don’t shine. She and her bottom-feeding lawyers withdrew the application.

One area of confusion is that trademarks can be words. It’s important to note that the words must be associated with a brand, but the brand does not have to be commercial. Law enforcement agencies can have an image and brand to protect, too. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police control licensing over their image and have been cracking down on trademark infringement for over twenty years. Merchandise with the RCMP name and logo are available in commercial outlets, but vendors pay a ten percent licensing fee to the Mounties.

Technically, trademarks can’t be used without the owner’s permission. This means if you insert one in a novel, the owner can demand removal. The list of trademarked single words is long and surprising. Gerber owns the trademark to “onesie”. “Shabby chic” belongs to designer Rachel Ashwell. The National Association of Realtors owns the term “Realtor”. Marvel comics trademarked “Super Hero” in 1967, but the word “superhero” is okay to use by anyone. Even sounds can be trademarked. The three note NBC chime and the MGM lion’s roar is trademarked, but Harley Davison was unable to get one for its engine sound. My favorite
famous non-trademarked sound is The Wilhelm Scream. It’s a sound effect that cropped up in 1951 and has been used in over 200 films. Since the originator never applied for a trademark and his name is lost in the annals of history, it’s free for filmmakers to use. You’ve heard it dozens of times, but never knew what it was. Now you do. If you’re curious, check out this compilation of The Wilhelm Scream. I bet you recognize it.

A writer can avoid trouble by using generic terms; trash bin for Dumpster, tissue for Kleenex, sports car for Corvette. Frankly, most companies aren’t going to come after a writer for using a trademarked term. The only ones I know who are frothing-at-the-mouth possessive about their property rights, and employ a cadre of lawyers to defend them, are Disney and Marvel (now a Disney company.) I recommend staying away from any mention of their products.

So what the heck is a patent?
Patents are used for inventions and processes. As with a copyright, you can’t patent an idea. In short, patents can be issued for a process (steps to produce a result), a machine, manufacturing (combining materials in a new way), or composition (a novel drug or genetically modified seed.) The only instance for a writer to consider a patent might be in the development of a software program, for example, a different type of grammar check. Even then, the benefits of a patent is debatable. It depends on how the software is used together with the hardware, and what should be protected from a competitor. The software innovation may lie in an apparatus, system, algorithm, method, network, data processing or the software itself. It’s important to remember the patent process is expensive, time-consuming, and a patent needs to be filed in every country where you want protection.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Ng Mui: A Real Warrior Woman

When westerners think of Chinese martial arts, the term kung fu generally comes to mind. The word kung fu is a compound of (gōng) meaning work and (fū) merit, and refers to any skill that is acquired through learning or practice. Kung fu is often misunderstood by outsiders to be a single fighting style. In reality, it is made of several hundred styles or schools, and legend has it one of them was founded by a woman.

Ng Mui was born in a noble household in China in the seventeenth century and her life is a mixture of fact and legend. In some stories she is the daughter of a general in the Ming imperial court, in others a princess, but because of wealth and family influence, she had access to an extensive education and the best kung fu teachers of the time. In her younger years, Ng Mui mastered several Shaolin martial arts and even developed a new training regimen on upturned logs to develop balance and leg strength, a practice she later incorporated into her own fighting style.

Her transformation into a warrior woman began in a bloody coup. The Manchus defeated the Ming dynasty and took over the rule of China. Ng Mui parents, fervent supporters of the Ming, were killed. Fortunately, she was away from home when the purge started. She escaped to Kwangsi Province and took refuge in the White Crane Temple. Due to the Shaolin’s support for the Ming, the monks and nuns faced great danger, so had to remain on alert for attacks.

Ng Mui became a Buddhist nun. Although highly proficient in the existing styles of kung fu, she felt it was possible to devise a more effective fighting method which didn’t rely on brute strength or require years to master. Her story has several versions, but the one I like says one day, she watched a fight between a stork and a snake. The stork used its wings and legs to deflect and counter-attack at the same time. Inspiration struck Ng Mui. She adapted the technique to create a unique new martial art that emphasized a delicate but natural self-defense style and transcended size, weight and gender. The movements required little force to block and could strike effectively and efficiently.

At first, her new technique had no name. Then Ng Mui met a beautiful young girl named Yim Wing Chun. Her fiancé was away fighting with a rebel force and a bandit warlord tried to force her into marriage. She refused and he threatened her and her family. Yim Wing Chun feared she’d have to yield to his desires, but Ng Mui convinced the girl to give her six months for training. By the end of six months she mastered the new the art of self-defense and then challenged the warlord to combat. She defeated him. Her fiancé returned and was impressed with her new skill. She bested him, too, and he begged her to teach him the fighting style. He named it Wing Chun in her honor. It translates as “everlasting springtime” which sounds pretty soft for one tough cookie.

Ng Mui became one of the Five Elders of the Shaolin Temple, the most respected marital artists of the 1700s. Because of the Shaolins’ support of the previous Ming dynasty, the Manchu eventually attacked and destroyed the temple. The elders escaped and scattered in different directions. Ng Mui and her followers supposedly went into hiding in the Himalayan foothills where she became part of a rebel force and continued to teach kung fu.

Wing Chun was reintroduced in the twentieth century by Grandmaster Ip Man, regarded as the greatest and most insightful teacher of Wing Chun. He moved to Hong Kong in 1948 and became the first master to teach the fighting style to the general public and spread the popularity of Wing Chun around the world today.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Medieval Fair: The Amazon of the Dark Ages

People tend to think of the Middle Ages as a time of contention; city states and petty kingdoms constantly at war as rulers jockeyed for power. Despite fluctuating borders, people still need stuff and commerce was alive and well. At the medieval fair, buying and selling took place on a grand scale. The fair at Champagne was famous early on, but Britain, Germany, and other countries were equally well-attended.

Most fairs had origins as religious festivals. Crowds of pilgrims naturally gathered to pay homage to a particular saint and understandably might want a little nosh afterwards. Astute merchants and vendors saw a golden opportunity and jumped right in. The first rule of marketing: get your product out in front of buyers, and it helps if you have God spread the word. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris secured a fragment of the true cross in 1109 and became the center of a yearly June pilgrimage. It didn’t take long for booths to be set up between the areas of Montmartre and St. Denis. The fair became known as Lendit from the French word l’endit or assembly. The bishops had no objection as it brought more of the faithful to the cathedral.

Fairs weren’t only established around cathedrals; other buildings did nicely. Some were even founded by religious orders. One of the largest was established in 1036 by the Abbey of St. Vaast at Arras in Germany.  Clerics discovered not only the advantages of having goods and services for sale close at hand, but also the joy of taxes. Pheasants, meanwhile, discovered the joy of discovering loopholes in revenue laws. They staggered into Arras weighed down by bundles of goods on their backs because merchandise arriving on foot wasn’t taxed. Can’t carry all those pigs to market in a sack? Make sure to use a cart with an unshod horse. Shod horses were taxed at two deniers apiece.

As years pas and the popularity of fairs spread, temporary structures and itinerant merchants were replaced by fixed stalls and benches. The spread of commerce brought more money into circulation and merchants began to construct small shops, often with storerooms behind and living quarters above. It wasn’t uncommon for similar merchants to concentrate in a particular area; one street would be devoted to butchers, another to spice merchants, others to trades such as cloth, leather goods, or metalworking.

So what could you buy at one of these fairs? Everything your little medieval life needed. Fishmongers sold sturgeon, salmon, and salted herring, but if you lived at the coast you might wander down to your favorite stall and see if they had any fresh whale meat today. Food preservation was generally restricted to brining, salting, smoking, or drying so the fruits and vegetables were sold by the growing seasons. Cattle and pigs tended to be butchered in the fall after summer fattening, but chickens and eggs might be available year round. Honey, salt, oil, cheeses and a variety of wine and beer were also common purchases. Need to cook your foods? Visit the smithy who can hammer out some pots and pans. Planning to get married? Some stands carried specialty items such as delicate lace or fine embroidery. There was no such thing as off the rack shoes, everything was to order so pick out your cowhide from the cobbler and have him rustle up a nice pair of boots or use that new embroidered cloth for a fancy pair of slippers.

As the Middle Ages progressed, trade became increasing professional. Early merchants were from the lower class and used commerce to rise above the status of downtrodden peasant. Markets and trade expanded and so did the middle class. They grew not only in size, but also in economic power and began to demand more rights. Royalty wasn’t happy, but they were also dependent on trade and the taxes it brought to support their regimes. Eventually, the power of the monarchies slipped. And you thought civil war was necessary to bring about democracy. Nope, it only required shopping.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

What is an ISBN and does a self-published author need one?

What is an ISBN?
ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It has 13 digits and consists of 5 sections separated by spaces or hyphens. The first group is the prefix element. It is either 978 or 979.  Next is the registration group. It’s between 1 and 5 digits and identifies the country, geographic region, or language. The third is the registrant, up to 7 digits and identifies the publisher or imprints. The publication element is fourth. It has up to 6 digits and identifies the particular edition and format of a specific title. The last is the single check digit. It’s used in some fancy-schmancy mathematical formula you and I can’t care less about and validates the ISBN.

Now that I know what it is, what the heck is an ISBN used for?
An ISBN is a product identifier. That’s it. The number is assigned to publications and used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers and others to order, record sales, or manage stock. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition, and format. ISBNs are assigned to single publications such as books, but not to serial publications such as journals or newspapers. Any book made publicly available, for sale or free, can be identified by an ISBN, but so can individual chapters of books or articles from journals and periodicals. An ebook doesn’t require an ISBN, but a publisher can attach one, if desired. However, each format (e.g. paperback, hardcover, EPUB, .pdf) requires a separate number, so if you choose to assign an ISBN to an ebook, it must have a different number than the paperback version.

What does that have to do with the copyright?
Nada, zilch, zippo. The ISBN is an identifier. Simply having an ISBN on a book doesn’t convey any legal or copyright protection. Nor does it take any away from the author. The ISBN only identifies the publisher of a particular edition. In effect, the person or company who ponied up for the ISBN.

How do you get an ISBN?
You have to buy it and they’re not cheap. The only authorized representative in the United States to sell ISBNs is a company called Bowker. ISBNS are $125 for a single ISBN, but they have reduced rates if you buy in bulk.

Does a self-published author need an ISBN?
Maybe. Maybe not. If you only plan to publish an ebook then an ISBN isn’t necessary. Paperbacks or hardcovers are different stories. Companies such as CreateSpace will give you an ISBN for free if you publish with them. Again, this has nothing to do with copyright. The number will only identify the publisher as CreateSpace, and you will still be the author and retain all rights.

If you plan to market mostly ebooks and only sell hard or softcovers through a website or conventions then this is a good cheap way to go. However, you can pretty much forget about bookstores. Most are loathe to take on self-published authors anyway, but a CreateSpace ISBN is the kiss of death. First of all, it’s an Amazon company and indy bookstores don’t want to throw any more money at the Big A. The biggest reason is that companies like CreateSpace don’t have a buy-back option for booksellers, so a retailer can’t return unsold books. Indy bookstores aren’t particularly welcoming to self-published authors, but you may be able to talk a few into carrying your book if you have an ISBN from a company that offers buy-backs, so they’re not out any money if your book doesn’t sell. This means becoming your own publisher. Don’t worry, you don’t need to invest in typesetting equipment. Simply buy an ISBN and use a company that offers buy-back, such as IngramSpark. It won’t guarantee sales, of course, but may put you one step closer. Good luck.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Write your Way out of a Corner with W5

You’re cruising along nicely, enjoying the literary scenery; characters jell, plots flow smoothly, descriptions create the mood of the proper time and place. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, you swerve. Ideas fall part and that engrossing manuscript that flowed along so neatly is now one hot mess. Don’t throw out your fictional baby with the literary bathwater. You’ve only reached a snag on the road to publication. Sometimes coming to a dead stop is necessary to get thoughts in order. In general, weakness occur in the two places; character or plot issues. One method to get back on track is called the W5. It asks basic questions about character and plot and can help guide your thoughts.

Character Issues

If you want to round out your hero or heroine (H/H) consider how they interact with others. Who is directly affected by their actions? Only the H/H? What about friends? Family Members? Are they really important to the story or just window dressing? If they don’t advance the plot, what good are they? Too many clutter a plot and slow down the action. Secondary characters should have a specific purpose (so should the H/H.) If Joe the Coffee Shop guy’s only function is to give the heroine her cup of coffee in the morning than delete Joe the Coffee Shop guy and have her brew her own.

Are you clear on the strengths and weakness of the H/H? Every human has both, and both should appear somewhere in the story or else you have a caricature and not a person. How do these strength or weaknesses help the H/H agenda and move the plot along. How do they hinder?
Who makes the decisions in the story? If one character is always leading, then the others are probably too weak and ineffective. 

Where is the most tension between the main characters? Is it a personality conflict or conflict of ideals?  How can they be resolved? Should one convince the other or is a combination of both the best pathway to success. Can the H/H get help from others? Do these characters have an alternate function or are they only there to feed information to the H/H? If so, they may not be important and the information they distribute can be found in another way.

Plot Issues

What is both the best and worst case scenario for this story? Think of at least three steps necessary for your H/H to achieve. What is the least and most important one of them? In most stories, the objective is obvious, but if your plot feels a little lackluster consider one alternative or a hidden agenda. This is the way people act in real life. They aren’t ruled by single motives alone.

Is the action well-paced? Will a reader feel rising tension beginning with the first chapter and have a satisfying letdown at the end? Novels don’t have one climatic point, but a series of smaller ones, some more important than others. They lead up to the denouement or final resolution. Does the H/H take action at the right time? A writer can’t keep a reader on an emotional high throughout an entire novel. There has to be some downtime, too, to flesh out the story. Lastly, when will the H/H know they succeeded? Will it be at the denouement or shortly thereafter with a final resolution?

Have you considered the why of this story? Why must it be told? (“To score a publishing contract” is not the right answer.) The story should be told because it’s enjoyable or enlightening. Have you conveyed to the reader sympathy for the characters so that they care about the resolution? What about the characters? Are the reasons for their actions clear? Are obstacles placed in the path of the story’s resolution or are you merely throwing barriers in the H/H’s way to make the story longer. Each barrier should have a logical reason behind it and a different resolution.

Now you’re back on track. Put on that writing cap and get to work. The story awaits.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Suicide Song, Big Easy Shaman Book 3, is available for pre-order

The Suicide Song
The Suicide Song, Big Easy Shaman Book 3, is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

Once you hear the Suicide Song, it’s too late to run.

There’s more trouble in the Big Easy for budding shaman Peter Whistler and his friends. The Book of the Practically Undead is proving difficult to destroy. Meanwhile, someone mastered the Suicide Song, a particularly nasty bit of dark magic. Once a victim is trapped by the singer’s deadly tune, death by suicide is the only escape. Could this new conjuror also have something to do with a lovesick fifolet causing trouble in Bayou St. Gerard? Peter’s own love life could certainly use assistance. How can he concentrate on the upcoming Père Noël dance when danger lurks around every corner?
Fifolets, pirate curses, and deadly threats to New Orleans. Will Peter and his friends prevail and stop the Suicide Song before the conjuror claims the next victim?

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Don't Stop With a Cop: Unusual Law Enforcement Agencies to Write About

A common occupation for either a hero or heroine in an action novel is law enforcement officer. The profession makes sense. When dealing with the evil aspects of the paranormal, a person needs steely nerves and ready access to firearms. By why stop with a cop when other agencies might do nicely?

NYPD Intelligence Bureau
Did you know an arm of the NYPD is an international intelligence organization? The mission of the NYPD Intelligence Bureau is to detect and disrupt criminal and terrorist activity. Officers and civilian analysts in the Intelligence Bureau collect and analyze data from a variety of sources here and abroad in the pursuit of criminal and terrorist organizations. The Bureau consists of two divisions; the Intelligence Operations and Analysis Section (IOAS) and the Criminal Intelligence Section (CIS).

The objective of IOAS is to thwart potential terrorist plots. The sector uses investigators and civilian analysts to collect and analyze information about individuals or groups engaged in unlawful activity. CIS has a similar function, but concentrates on the criminal realm. A critical component of CIS is the Field Intelligence Officer (FIO) program. FIOs are ranking uniformed officers deployed to each NYPD precinct, where they collect and disseminate criminal intelligence information to support narcotics, firearms and other criminal investigations, ranging from simple short-term cases to complex long-term ones.

While members of the Intelligence Bureau in New York City work closely with federal, state, and local law enforcement, through its International Liaison Program officers are posted in law enforcement agencies around the world. These officers support the NYPD by providing intelligence and working with local police. Nothing is said about hunting down demons that roam the sewers and pose a threat to the good folk of New York City, but one can only hope.

Need an overseas agent provocateur to handle those pesky gremlins, banshees, rakshasha, and strigoi? Don’t bother looking for a dashing Interpol agent. There aren’t any. INTERPOL’s mission it to train, offer investigative support, collect data and provide communications channels among cooperating law enforcement agencies. INTERPOL also analyzes crime trends and facilitates international police cooperation even where diplomatic relations don’t exist between countries. In other words, no hunky experts in daring-do, just office drones. Agents don't even carry guns. (Although nothing is said on their website about stakes or silver bullets.) It’s more useful to think of INTERPOL as a bulletin board where national police forces around the world post wanted notices and requests for information. Some nations have decided to give these requests binding legal force, but the United States isn’t one of them.

All INTERPOL member countries are connected through a secure communications system known as I-24/7. This gives police real-time access to criminal databases containing millions of records and can alert member countries to fugitives, dangerous criminals, missing persons, or weapons threats. Unfortunately, instead of hunting supernatural menaces through the sewers of Paris, an Interpol is agent is more likely to conduct an online learning course in investigative techniques or an administrative management program for senior police staff.

Texas Rangers
The Texas Ranger Division is the primary criminal investigative branch of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Most functions are common among law enforcement agencies. Rangers investigate murder, robbery, sexual assault, burglary, theft, fraud, threats against state and federal officials, and missing persons.

Unlike standard police forces in the rest of the country though, Texas Rangers also have special duties involving border control. The Ranger Reconnaissance Team is a highly trained tactical force and their primary responsibility is to carry out missions along the Texas-Mexico border region.  They conduct overt and covert operations in remote areas where conventional law enforcement can’t operate. The focus is to gather intelligence and disrupt criminal activity usually associated with drug cartels. According to the official
website, one of their duties is to “conduct interdiction” which, if you know what the word “interdiction” means, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I prefer to read between the lines and like to think they really mean “benedictions” before pursuing supernatural creatures. Although, the website is sketchy on this subject too, so chupacabras may still run free in the Big Bend National Park. It’s a nice thought.