First off, Google's search page today is Las Meninas. I have no clue as to why (maybe it is an anniversary for the great painting?). Second, I thought today would be a good idea to address legal issues as they pertain to writing. This is a good general resource of basic books, websites and samples of legal issues for writers. Here is another, more comprehensive resource.
Many people ask about registration of copyright. For years, publishers routinely registered the copyright of works they published. However, it came to people's attention that in the 1990's, some publishers who had very big programs weren't doing the registration. People had "assumed" their books had been registered, when in fact, they had not. Now, authors are registering their work on their own, in increasing numbers. Another issue is "work for hire" vs. advance/royalty contracts. This is a good article about that issue. Another question that arises is the issue of pen names and copyright -- Ivan Hoffman has another good discussion of that.
I believe that one's choice of literary agent is not only based upon whether that agent believes in you and your work, and can effectively market it, it is also based on that agent's knowledge and understanding of contractual negotiations -- not just for the short-term gain, but also the long-term responsible protection and preservation of your work. If you're any good as a writer, you will write something that will last more than one printing. You will have something that needs to be considered and protected over a significant period of time. So, choose your representation not only based upon what you think they can get for you today, but also tomorrow.
Ivan Hoffman also has an excellent article about online content providers, beyond print publishers that have an online presence (i.e., people who maintain content portals, etc.). He points up that ordinary liability insurance does not generally cover online content. His article was written in 2001, but this remains true today. Most book publishers have legal departments that vet work (more or less!) prior to publication. Other smaller presses have legal advisors they can consult prior to publication, if they have reason to believe they might have some type of problem.
I can say from experience in both business and personal life that there are litigious individuals out there who will waste an unbelievable amount of time and money on meritless lawsuits. Even small businesses are aware of the abuses of the workers' compensation system and various other penny-ante false harassment claims. Dealing with this type of situation is a cost of doing business -- and any liability insurance provider will provide training in appropriate procedures to avoid this situation entirely, or to mitigate it in the event it does occur.
This is a difficult matter for individuals, because I believe that one of the most pernicious internet behaviors is that of the serial lawsuit-threatener - the individual who threatens to lawyer up to enforce his or her desires at the time via the internet. Many people can get business riders on personal insurance policies, but the chances that this would cover this type of activity are very slim. Dealing with only one fake harassment lawsuit can easily cost you $10,000. And frankly, being targeted for something like that is a cost of doing business in the public eye, and if you are going to put yourself out there on the internet, be aware that such events could occur to you. It is very unlikely that an internet troll would actually go to the extent of bringing a legal action that was threatened during the trolling activity.
However, all people should be aware that there is a difference between filing a civil action, and defending one. There are some low-level attorneys out there who will file any number of civil actions, in full awareness that their behavior must rise to an extreme level before they suffer any type of personal sanction (i.e., many spurious cases filed, many violations - even the CA State Bar focuses on financial, not courtroom, malfeasance). For example, there are workers' compensation attorneys who will take on as many as 200 cases for no up-front fees, in the hope of winning just one. However, this same attorney will require payment if asked to defend a legal action. So basically, a litigious lunatic can file and file until eventually he or she is stopped - and it could take a very long time. However, such lunatics will have to pay should anyone file a legal action against them. The point of civil court is money. And because most people who file spurious lawsuits have little or no money, few people think to file lawsuits against them, or are dissuaded from it by responsible attorneys -- because there is simply nothing to recover even in the case of an award. Does it sound wrong?
Absolutely. It is totally immoral, and totally wrong. It's called the "tyranny of the poor." It bothers large corporations with "deep pockets" because it exacts a fairly high cost of unnecessary expenses - their insurance rates increase tremendously, and they do pay nuisance awards to make these people go away. It's one of the central tenets of tort reform (that's unlikely to ever happen in this country - that has been the law in the UK since 1967 - why should we copy them? Ha!). This term was explained to me by the brilliant, excellent attorney Joe Arias in 1992 or so.
Legal liability and knowledge is actually a serious matter for writers working in the public eye. They would do well to have counsel to consult in all matters where there could be a question, and to follow attorneys' guidance and advice. That is certainly what I do, on a routine basis.