Rights and the WriterPosted: November 9, 2007
“Write something about rights,” a young friend suggested recently. “I’m confused. What rights do I have and what should I sell?”
It’s good that she wants to have those questions answered. Rights are important because they can mean money in your pocket. You need to know what rights you can sell to publishers and others, and you need to know the legal aspects of selling your rights.
To start with the basics, you own the copyright to everything you write — that is, you own all rights to the work you create. You may license publishers and others to use your copyright. That’s what we mean by “selling our rights.”
This is my understanding of the rights that we writers can sell:
FIRST PUBLICATION RIGHTS
The first time you allow use of your copyright for a particular work, you are granting first publication rights. After the work is published for the first time, the copyright reverts to you and you are then free to grant others the right to republish the work.
In the U.S., Canada and Mexico, when your work is published in a magazine for the first time, you sell First North American Serial Rights (FNASR). (Serial means publications that appear periodically, as opposed to books).
FIRST ELECTRONIC PUBLICATION RIGHTS
Publishers often expect you to give them electronic rights along with FNASR and they seldom offer addition payment for those rights. Remember, however, that those rights are valuable and they are negotiable. You can negotiate for higher pay for FNASR and you can ask for additional payment for electronic rights. You can also negotiate a time limit for the use of electronic rights. Some writers allow the use for three months; others six months or more. The copyright returns to you afterwards.
ONE TIME RIGHTS
After initial magazine publication, you can sell One-Time Rights (Reprint Rights) to other periodicals. This is not the same as First Publication Rights. One-Time Rights give publishers the right to one-time use of already published works. If you specify that you are offering Non-Exclusive Reprint Rights, you can sell the work to more than more one publisher or to multiple publishers at the same time.
Magazine writers have a range of other rights to offer for sale, including Excerpt Rights, Anthology Rights, Braille Rights, Foreign Rights, First European Rights (or maybe First German Rights, First French Rights, First British Rights—you get the idea). Book authors have even more rights to offer, including Translation, Movie, Television, Audiotape, and other electronic rights. You may need a lawyer or a knowledgeable agent to guide you through the maze of rights you can sell.
Be aware that by giving up certain rights, you no longer have any ownership in the work you created. WORKS FOR HIRE and ALL RIGHTS strip you of all rights. Writers should avoid these agreements if possible.
Many publishers expect writers to sign WORKS FOR HIRE agreements, giving the publisher complete ownership of the work and the copyright. Publishers can then sell your work or use it any way they choose without additional compensation to you. You have to be careful even about using the research done in preparing the work. If you use that research again or if you write a similar piece for another publisher, you may be infringing on the publisher’s copyright. Good reasons to avoid Works for Hire agreements.
When you sell ALL RIGHTS, it means just that. You give up all rights to your work and you can never use the article again in its present form. You hold the copyright in name only and you have no rights to sell, but the publisher can reprint your work, put it online or sell it to others, without additional payment to you.
If the pay is good, some writers don’t mind selling all rights in certain circumstances, such as when an article would be soon outdated by rapidly changing technology. But others want to hang onto as many rights as possible. Remember this: Rights are valuable, otherwise publishers would not be so eager to grab them from writers.
For a lively look at the pros and cons of selling rights, check out Moira Allen’s excellent article, “Selling All Rights: Right or Wrong.” In her article, Moira references another excellent article, “Rights: What They Mean and Why They’re Important,” by Marg Gilks.
And for an up-close look at what happened when one writer sold all rights to an article, be sure to read, “The Article You Can’t Read on This Site,” by Barbara Florio Graham, a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada.
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