A question from a reader on the subject of pseudonyms*
I like to write in different genres and want to use a pseudonym. Are there any special legal issues to consider before doing so?”
There are many reasons why a writer may choose to use a pseudonym, or pen name, and writing in different genres is a popular one. (Keep in mind that a pseudonym is not a legal name. If you want to change your legal name, that is another process that an attorney can assist you with.)
There are a few things to consider before you use a pseudonym. The first is copyright term. If you register your copyright with the copyright office using a pseudonym and do not use your real name also, the work is considered pseudonymous and has copyright protection from either 95 years from publication of the work or 120 years from when it was created, whichever date is earlier. This differs from current copyright law where the author is known, which offers copyright protection for the author’s life plus 70 years. If you register a work with the copyright office using a pseudonym but under your real name, you will be covered by the latter. If you do the math, copyright term is not that big of a difference. When you register only using a fake name or if you do not register at all, the potential issue is proving ownership of the work, which is important if you want to assign or sell your rights. (Note that under copyright law, copyright protection exists the moment you write your book.)
When dealing with your publisher or agent, you can stipulate in your contract that your byline will be your pseudonym but that payments will go to you. For example, if I decide to write science fiction under the name Science Girl, I can specify that “Science Girl” is my pseudonym but payments go to Dina Di Maio. In the very first paragraph of my contract, I would also write, “This agreement is between Publisher and Dina Di Maio p/k/a Science Girl.” (p/k/a = professionally known as.)
In your contract, you also want to be clear on how the publisher can use your pseudonym. For example, you will want to allow the publisher to use the name for marketing purposes.
The name itself, “Science Girl,” cannot be protected under copyright law, but it could be protected under trademark law if it meets the requirements. When choosing a name, make sure it is one that others do not already have rights to.
In the rare instance you don’t want your publisher or agent to know your real name, I suggest you speak to a local business or tax attorney to ensure you are following the law when it comes to operating a business and paying taxes.
Just a note about negative motives for using pseudonyms. Using a pseudonym is not a way to hide from a lawsuit. It doesn’t protect you from defamation, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, breach of contract or warranty or any other suit related to your work. It also doesn’t get you out of an option clause. (An option clause is where the publisher has the option to publish your next book.) And of course, I’m stating the obvious when I say that pseudonyms cannot be used for any unlawful purposes like tax fraud.
Dina Di Maio is a licensed attorney in New York and Tennessee. She is a member of and was a legal intern at the Authors Guild. She is an author of the Vault Guide to the Top 100 Law Firms and has written for the American Bar Association and the Tennessee Bar Association.
*This is for information only. Depending on your question, an intellectual property (copyright and/or trademark), tax, business or general attorney would be able to help with your particular situation.