Pen name paranoia
September 17, 2007 6:24 PM   Subscribe

I've decided to publish a poem and a short story under a pen name. I'm wondering if there are any negative consequences involved in this that I may not be aware of.

My motivations for this are purely literary. Part of a bigger literary project that I'm engaged in necessitates that I actually publish something as a fictional person. The literary journal I aim to publish under is a university small press sort of thing, in Canada BTW. This journal requires that I provide a mailing address. I'm tempted to either use my own, or pick some address at random. My question is... is this legal? Do I "lose" the rights to my writing if I do this? If I'm "found out" by the journal, are there any legal or copyright ramifications?

Basically, I just want to double check with a few smart people before I go ahead and do this. Is this actually a bad idea? Or am I more or less in the clear to get my bigger project on the go?
posted by ndicecco to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
To my knowledge there's no legal problem. The only problem I've encountered is that if you're being paid, the cheque will be in the fictional person's name. You can get around this by registering a company name as the fictional person's name (ie, register a business and call it "Tom Wigglesworth" or whatever. Cheques will be made out to that "person" but are deposited into the business account and no one's the wiser. This also works with ©2006 Tom Wigglesworth.

That said, there are people who get very upset with those who correspond as a fictional person. Don't let them find out.
posted by dobbs at 8:21 PM on September 17, 2007

You mentioned that you plan to publish in a Canadian journal, so I'm going to assume you're a Canadian citizen and that the work under discussion will be/was created by you in Canada. Since you plan on using a pseudonym, with regards to copyright legislation in Canada your work will be considered a "pseudonymous work."

As a pseudonymous work the copyright term for your work will be the remainder of the calendar year of the first publication of the work plus a period of 50 years after that; or the remainder of the calendar year of the making of the work plus 75 years after that (see Canadian Copyright Act, Ch. C-42, § 6.1). However, if during that term your identity becomes commonly known the term reverts to the standard term of life of the author plus 50 years.
posted by RichardP at 8:39 PM on September 17, 2007

Argh, that should have been "...will be the shorter of the remainder...".

Use of a pseudonym can complicate any business dealings involving your work and can also complicate any attempt of yours to enforce your rights, since the use of a pseudonym can bring up issues regarding ownership of the copyright property. For instance, if someone else identified themselves as "pseudonymous ndicecco" and claimed ownership of your work, how would you prove otherwise?

Furthermore, you might want to check the terms of your contract with your publisher, while Canadian copyright law protects pseudonymous as well as anonymous works, it may be the case that this is prohibited by the terms of your contract with the journal in question. If you have concerns, it would be wise to consult an attorney for legal advice on these matters.
posted by RichardP at 8:56 PM on September 17, 2007

Generally, what one does is submit with both names. Your header would read

A Poem Title
John Smith
Writing as Jake Smithe
Your Address
Etc., etc..

The work will be published under your Writing As name, your check will be cut to your legal name.
posted by headspace at 6:49 AM on September 18, 2007

I've done this, ndicecco. I've published a number of poems under a (very thin) pseudonym, and also published articles under my own name. And Headspace's answer is correct, in my experience, but you should bring these issues up when your piece is accepted for publication. How to? Like so:

1) Send out mss. to various journals under your pen name.
2) Wait for them to reply (as you know, this can take what seems like forever!
3) When one has replied and has expressed interest in publishing your piece, respond with a very polite letter agreeing to their terms of publication, thanking them for their interest, and explaining the distinction between your pen name and your real name. Explicitly ask them to publish the poem under your pen name. When they send any paperwork (which they may or may not do), make sure that the paperwork lists your name, and the pen name, in the manner that headspace suggests.

However, much of your question seems concerned with the copyright implications of this act. IANAL, IANYL, and, to boot, I don't know very much about the details of Canadian copyright law, other than knowing that Canada is a member state to WIPO. But I'll guess that the distinctions between US and Canadian law are not going to be germane, for the purposes of my answer.

Why do I make this guess? Because I'll be addressing your copyright concerns in the broadest sense. What does this mean? Well, for starters, remember that (c) law is supposed to be about striking a balance between the needs of creators (i.e., you) and the needs of the market (the publishers who will publish your work, the readers who will purchase your work, and folks who may (want to) use your work as the basis of further work (which is, in short, the essence of the creative arts, at least, according to folks like T.S. Eliot, Robert Rauschenberg, and countless other artists and writers).

So, ndicecco, why not do some thinking about the balance you want your (c) to strike. By means of explaining your predicament, you write that "My motivations for this are purely literary. Part of a bigger literary project that I'm engaged in necessitates that I actually publish something as a fictional person. The literary journal I aim to publish [in] . . . requires that I provide a mailing address." And while I believe all of this, I want to ask if you've checked the journal's copyright policy.

Many literary journals require that copyright revert to author upon publication (this is often the case among small journals coming out of public universities). Some do the reverse, and claim copyright upon publication. What's the difference? Those that require reverter of copyright are usually those publications that don't sell lots of copies; they also (usually) won't pay you, or won't pay much. Those publications that claim copyright are often those publications that do sell a relatively large number of issues; these are your New Yorkers, your Saturday Nights (R.I.P.), your Atlantic Monthlies, and these are the ones pay pretty well, and that every writer dreams of being in, but few find themselves in (we'll leave the why of that phenom for another AskMe thread).

But there are also many folks who are actively trying to use copyright law to achieve "purely literary" ends. One such group of folks are those people behind the Creative Commons license. While I'd guess that you've heard of CC licenses with respect to web-based publications, you may not know that CC licenses can be applied to any work that has been fixed into a medium (including paper), which is one of the basic criteria for a work to be protected by copyright, at least here in the U.S. So, I'd ask the journals you want to publish in: what are their terms? Do they use CC or similar open-access licenses? (CC is not the only way to go, but it is a standard route. And furthermore, anecdotal evidence tells me that the Canadians are a bit more reasonable about copyright term and other aspects of (c) law than the USAians are, and therefore, your question may be moot, as the journal you're submitting to may already offer open-access licensing)

Finally, remember that copyright issues really only matter (in the sense of having ramifications) when the work in question is of high monetary value. This is usually not the sort of work one finds in what we used to call "the little magazines," which I read you as submitting to. If it does turn out that you are the next Eliot, then yeah, your copyright in that poem may become valuable, and may yield ramifications. But if that were the case (and I hope that it is), then why wouldn't you bring along your pseudonym? Remember that Mark Twain and George Sand left quite an imprint on letters under pen names . . . and I don't think that either of them suffered too many copyright ramifications for that.
posted by deejay jaydee at 8:13 AM on September 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow! Thank you deejay jaydee and headspace! Your collective effort has put my concerns to rest!
posted by ndicecco at 7:18 AM on September 23, 2007

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