Know your rights: A fun talk with Lawyer-Writer Sheree Martin

26 May

And what can a lawyer teach aspiring writers?

Other than the fact that John Grisham turned into a killer novelist, and Atticus Finch is one of the best fictional characters of all time…actually, quite a lot!

Sheree Martin is a writer and a lawyer, with lots of advice for writers on what they should know about legal advice;  she’s also a communications strategist and an aspiring novelist (so, she’s got that in common with a lot of us!).

She will also be speaking June 2-3 at the Southern Christian Writers Conference in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, so I felt like we needed to have an advance, online meet-and-greet with Sheree to get an idea of what we can expect from her.

Question: You are a lawyer AND a writer. Tell  me about how that combination works.

I suspect anyone who is a lawyer will say that 80% of what lawyers do is write. Maybe an overstatement in terms of time, but there’s no question that words (and punctuation) are the currency of law, so lawyers must be able to write with precision.

I’ve always been focused on the broader realm of communication, even as a child. I’ve been writing in some form or fashion from the beginning. Journalism was part of the mix from as early as age 8, based on various writings saved from my childhood. On one of those early occasions, I interviewed my extended family and wrote my first “book”– a compilation of those interviews “published” in a three-ring folder with metal tabs that fold over to hold the pages in place.

When I was in the 8th grade, I decided I would become a lawyer. My heroes were the Founding Fathers, especially Benjamin Franklin (a journalist), so it’s natural that I would end up doing both. I was a staff reporter for my hometown newspaper the summer before law school and ended up freelance writing while working on my Ph.D. in Mass Communication. I worked for a number of years as a college professor but found that I was a bit too entrepreneurial for higher education. I’m fond of change and innovation and not-so-fond of committee meetings.

What legal issues do writers most need to know about?

For freelance writers: The difference between a “work for hire” and retaining ownership of copyright that can be licensed or sold to a publisher or other third party.

Using photos and illustrations of others without specific permission.

The FTC endorsement rules are vital for anyone who blogs commercially (or aspires to).

Writers, bloggers and freelance journalists who work in the realm of politics and topics of social discourse should learn everything they can about the rights of journalists (especially independent journalists) in their particular state.

Why do writers need to understand their rights?

The value of the free exchange of ideas and information goes to heart of how and why the U.S. exists as a country and why the Bill of Rights explicitly mentions the freedom of speech and press.

Every sentence the writer writes is an exercise of these freedoms, regardless of the content or message.

This is true whether the writer is proclaiming his or her spiritual faith, political viewpoint, or personal philosophy on the value of professional sports, fast food or Snapchat, or writing factual stories about a current or historical event of great (or even no) significance.

If writers do not know their rights, they can be intimidated and fail to speak out on an issue. If we don’t have competing ideas in the marketplace, we end up with an echo chamber and that serves no one.

Also, from a very practical standpoint, if writers know their rights, they feel empowered to negotiate for appropriate compensation for their work. Good writing, good reporting, is hard work. Writers deserve to be paid for their efforts.

What will your sessions at the SCWC encompass?

We’ll cover the standard copyright-related issues: What is protected by copyright, when does copyright protection “arise” and whether registration is required or recommended. We’ll take a quick look at “fair use” and how that relates to the right to quote from the work of others.

Related to fair use, we’ll also spend some time looking at whether bloggers can use photos they find “on the web” in their blog and whether attribution protects the blogger from copyright infringement.

We’ll also talk about the implications of “work for hire” in the freelance writing context.

I often get questions from writers who want to write about real life experiences involving other people, so we’ll go through a few examples relating to the right of privacy and something called public disclosure of private facts.

Defamation/libel can be an issue when writing “real life” stories, though probably less so than most writers expect. Truth is a defense to libel, of course. I don’t plan to spend much time on libel, unless those attending the session want to get into that.

We’ll also take a look at legal issues that come up in blogging, such as the FTC’s endorsement rules that require disclosure when a blogger receives some type of compensation or benefit for promoting products, services, brands.

What advice would you go back and give to yourself as a writer maybe 10 or 20 years ago?

I started my first “blog” in 1999 before it was called a blog. That morphed into a blog that I could have monetized in 2001-02-03 but I didn’t go that route, even though I was also freelancing in the online space in those days. I saw my “passion” writing as a fun side project. I wish I’d seen the passion project as a business then, in the way I do today.

But the great news is that, at least right now, the sky is the limit for what independent mediapreneurs can achieve through online media and self-publishing opportunities (if we don’t lose the free and open internet this year).

I don’t downplay the value of traditional publishing, but the fastest way to get the attention of the traditional publishing world today is success as an indie writer with “one thousand true fans” and an online following.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

In 2013, I outlined the approximately 95 theses of a work that’s titled “The Happy Life Manifesto.” (See, e.g. Martin Luther). Since then, I’ve been slowly writing essays on each thesis and I hope to finish that up this summer for publication. Thesis #1: It starts with Love.

I’m also returning to resume work on  novel I began writing in 1996, inspired by the Oklahoma City Bombing. I was about ½ – 2/3s through my first draft when I got cold feet back then. Current political events in the past year or so have inspired me to revisit the story and finish it.

As a lawyer/writer I have been working on an online course for writers that I’ve been putting together to offer as a standalone “product” to help writers with legal questions. It’s what you might call an in-depth, guided learning opportunity where I walk a writer through the various legal issues that might come up in various contexts. It resembles a practical adaptation of the media law course I used to teach as a college professor, but it’s aimed at writers and professional bloggers, not college students who need to take an academic course for graduation. It’s very “applied” for the real world of 2017.

Learn more:

Visit Sheree on Twitter

Visit Cheryl (me!) on Twitter

Learn more about the SCWC



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