Nom de plume (Pseudonym) & Copyright

by Syamsuriatina Ishak

Nom de plume (from French, literally meaning pen-name) in writing, otherwise known as pseudonyms, are aliases, alter egos, handles or alternative names which a writer assumes for the presentation of his or her creative work. 

Usually, the assumption of a pen name is for the avoidance or concealment of the writer’s actual identity (eg. protection from political backlash when writing an expose on a controversial issue); for marketing purposes, as a catchy and simplified version of the writer’s actual name, or to cater for different genres of writing (eg. one author may diversify and use one name for Historical fiction and another for Contemporary Romance or Science Fiction), such as in the case of Charles Dodgson, a mathematician, who wrote fantasy novels under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll and mathematical treatises under his own name.

Sometimes an author may choose to use a pen name merely to keep their private life and their public persona separate, while publishing houses may use a collective pen name or literary character’s name to identify a particular series of books, eg. writer Daniel Handler who wrote the book series A Series of Unfortunate Events under the pen name Lemony Snicket.

Some famous examples of noms de plumes used to hide or neutralize the writers’ gender, religion, race include George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans), S.E. Hinton (Susan Eloise Hinton), V.C. Andrews (Virginia Andrews), Author J.K. Rowling (Joanne Kathleen Rowling) of “Harry Potter” fame, who also went on to publish an adult book under the male name Robert Galbraith, and Erika Leonard James who chose the gender neutral name E.L. James to write the racy “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy. 

As you can see, there are various reasons why a writer would want to use a pen name instead of their own name. 

This post seeks to address which may concern a writers when contemplating the use of a pen name: WHAT EFFECT DOES USING A PEN NAME HAVE ON COPYRIGHT?

The most important fact you need to know is that, in law, a legal entity (under which a person can enter into a legally binding contract, sue and be sued) is separate from the ‘marketing name’ which fans or a book reader associates with a book title as its ‘Author’. 

In other words, if you’re concerned with ensuring adequate protection of your rights as an author or copyright owner, you need only concern yourself with maintaining that right under the law, i.e. by forging/obtaining the copyright, managing it (which is affected by how you may give or license it away through a contract), and maintaining or protecting such copyright (by commencing protective legal action in the event of copyright infringement or should the situation require).

Building a fan following for your Author’s name amongst readers and literary circles is a matter of marketing and consistent brand-building, which is a separate consideration altogether.

In a nutshell, the rights of an author is NOT affected by the use of a nom de plume, pen name or pseudonym. 

Logistically this means for those choosing the traditional publishing route, a publishing contract is always signed under the writer’s official or real name (as stated in his/her birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, social security number or other identification documents), while the pen name is often clearly listed under the column “Pen Name/Pseudonym” or “Writing as…”. Accordingly, royalty payments are made to the actual person, regardless of the pen name used on the book cover.

For self-publishers, the same mechanism applies: there is a separate registration in eBook marketing websites for “Publisher” (your own name) and “Writing Name” (pen name), to cater for separate payment and marketing purposes respectively.

One effect of using a pen name is that, while protection of copyright in most jurisdiction for a piece of writing is 50 years after an author’s death, copyright protection for an anonymous source would extend to 70 years. This duration fo copyright protection would apply also where a pseudonym which is not easily identifiable from public sources.

The moral rights of an author (as explained in Different Types of Author’s Rights) is also unaffected by use of a pen name.

But, also remember that copyright protects the creative works itself and not the pen name, although other forms of Intellectual Property protection may be available. Since a pen name or popular author’s name can also garner a reputation, a fan following or ‘branding’ of its own, it is possible for a copyright owner to sue for the tort of passing off (where someone attempts to pass off their work as the work of an already famous Author for profit) or to sue for damage to reputation under the tort of defamation. For this reason, when choosing a pen name, a writer should be careful not to choose a pen name which is already popularly in use (or Trade Mark registered). 

A practical complication that may arise from the use of a pen name is the issue of proof, i.e. HOW DO YOU PROVE THE WRITING IS YOURS? This goes back to the considerations outlined in Forging & Enforcing A Copyright. When using a pen name, it is even more imperative that you to keep proof of your authorship the creative works (emailing yourself and keeping copies of your various drafts and story outlines), as envisaged in the earlier post.

In cases where an author intends to use their pen name as their absolute public alter ego (not revealing their real identity in any way), it would be advisable for that author to engage a lawyer to draft the necessary legal documentation to ensure they have legal proof of ownership, and the requisite legal and copyright protection over their creative works, which the author must retain for safekeeping, and produce in the event of dispute of ownership.