Copyright Issues in E-Books and Electronic Publishing

This post discusses copyright issues in e-books and electronic publishing. If you’re using artwork, tables, map and charts and other third-party content in electronic books, then you should consider the copyright issues when planning your electronic project. Copyright permissions may be required for use of the content in your book.

Copyright and E-Books and Electronic Publishing

Copyright permissions should be considered when publishing an e-book.

Do you need permission for the copyright works in your e-book?

With greater opportunities for electronic publishing, many authors, traditional (print) publishers, and organizations are now also in the e-book business.  With this new role comes new business and legal responsibilities.  E-book publishers must be aware of several copyright issues relating to such things as cover artwork, tables, maps and charts, and excerpts of works to be included in their e-book.  It is important to look at the following copyright issues when electronically publishing a book.


What artwork you will use on the cover of your e-book will depend on various factors.  One factor may be your budget to commission specific artwork, or to purchase pre-existing artwork.  In either case, you have to consider whether you can afford and are able to negotiate an exclusive license to use that artwork, or whether non-exclusive use of the artwork fits within your needs.  You might also consider the in-house creation of artwork or a front cover photograph by an employee who creates such work as part of his duties.  Works created as part of one’s duties belong to one’s employer and this means  that you do not need to obtain permission to use those works on the cover of your e-book.

Tables, Maps and Charts

If you are including any tables, maps or charts in your e-book, you will need to determine the copyright status of these works.  Are these works in the public domain or can you find a public domain alternative?  Many government tables, maps and charts are in the public domain in the U.S., however the U.S. government may acquire and own a copyright-protected work if the work was prepared by a non-government employee.


Excerpts from other books and articles need to analyzed, often with a determination of fair use.  Where a one sentence quote is more likely to fall within the defense of fair use, using several key paragraphs from a journal article may not.  Each case is considered on its own, and the four fair use factors must be reviewed and applied to each excerpt.

Some areas where you might want to double-check copyright status include using one’s own excerpts, or an employee’s excerpts from her own writings.  Was the original document created as part of one’s employment duties?  If not, then the individual author may own that work.  If the original was created as part of employment duties, then the employer likely owns the copyright in that document or article and permission is not necessary to reproduce the work.  Also, has the work in question been previously published?  If so, was the copyright assigned to the publisher or does it remain with the original author/owner?

If you are including in your e-book any public domain works, ensure that these works are in fact in the public domain.  Go to the original public domain source as any adaptation of a public domain work may have a new copyright in it and may still be protected by copyright.

Copyright Notice

Once you create your e-book and are ready to publish it, you will need to consider the wording for the copyright notice/warning to include on your work.  Perhaps your readers will need to agree to a webwrap license prior to accessing the book, or be subject to another form of license.  Also, do you want to “lock” the e-book in any manner and use technological measures to ensure that only authorized persons may access, reproduce or forward copies of your e-book?  Further, consider registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.  Even though registration is not mandatory, it will provide you with certain advantages should you ever have to enforce your rights.

As is evident, copyright and other legal issues are some of the many additional issues an e-publisher must take into account.  Other issues include book design, layout, marketing, and distribution.  Self-publishers often better appreciate the role of traditional publishers when they must also be lawyers, publicists, book designers and more.

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  1. Lesley says:

    Hi Ian, that may be a trademark as well as a copyright issue. You don’t want to confuse anyone with the source in terms of using a trademark. Copyright may protect images, photographs, maps and more and for these, you would need permission to reproduce them. There may be some exceptions for incidental uses in certain countries’ copyright laws or fair use/dealing may apply in certain situations but you would need to go through an analysis for each use. If the use is in a publisher children’s book, the chances of fair use/dealing applying would likely lower.

  2. Ian says:


    I am thinking of publishing a children’s book and am worried about what the copyright issues are for images including branded products. Ie branded clothing and cereal containers.

    Would diguising the brands be enough to avoid copyright?

    Many thanks for your help.

  3. Lesley says:

    @Eric Hi Eric, as a general rule, whenever creating or distributing electronic works, it is best to obtain worldwide permissions. That way, you can distribute the book throughout the world.

  4. Eric says:

    If I’m publishing an electronic book in the U.S., and the book contains copyrighted material for which I need permissions, do I need just U.S. permissions or do I need “world” permissions?

  5. Lesley says:

    Hi Meg, there is no specific answer to your question. There can be as many different costs as there are different books.

  6. meg FP says:

    Could you tell me a ballpark figure of how much digital copies of books cost for a library?
    Like for 1 license 1 person or for 1 license to many people?

    Does the cost range differ for new release vs. older titles?

    Any info you could give me would help. I’m looking for the range of prices for these titles.

    Thanks so much! Great blog!

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