Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Guarding Your Rights as a Writer

by Susan

A few months back, we talked about copyright basics, and touched on the idea that you should be careful when signing an agreement with a publisher that your rights are adequately protected. Let's delve into that a little more.

Your copyright allows you to dole out publishing rights that can be split up numerous ways. The bundle of rights you grant a publisher affects what you can do with the piece down the road. These are not lawyerly descriptions, but some of the rights you might grant include:

  • First-time rights: the publisher gets dibs on printing it first, but you can shop it around to others or self-publish it afterwards.
  • One-time rights: they get it once, not necessarily first, and they aren't necessarily the only ones who can publish it.
  • Second rights or reprint rights: it's been printed at least once already, you're giving them permission to reprint it.
  • Geographic limits: such as North American rights or worldwide rights. This limits (or doesn't, in the case of worldwide rights) in which countries the publisher may reproduce your work.
  • Print, audiobook, ebook, serial rights: sets limits by format.
  • Exclusive rights: no one but the publisher has the right to publish it. This includes you. Even if you are the author, granting exclusive rights means you do not get to sell it to anyone else, nor can you self-publish it.
  • Non-exclusive rights: the publisher has the right to use it, but you retain the right to publish it elsewhere. 
  • Time-limited rights: you might give a publisher the right to publish your work for three years, or five years, or any amount of time up to the full length of copyright (your death + 70 years).

Another good concept to be familiar with are reversion clauses, that is, under what circumstances your rights will come back to you, such as if the book doesn't get published in a reasonable length of time, or if it goes out of print.

The thing to remember is that these rights are valuable. As you look at any contributor's agreement a publisher may send you, you need to evaluate whether they are asking for a fair grant of rights in exchange for what you are getting out of it. Do not rely on any assurances made outside the contract. The contract is the contract, and it says what it says.

Some recommended reading on this topic before you sign anything:

And a brief bibliography to educate yourself further. All of them are available in Wyoming libraries through WYLDCAT:
  • The Writer's Legal Companion, 3rd ed. by Brad Bunnin and Peter Beren. Reading, Mass. : Perseus Books, c1998.
  • The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know, 11th ed. by Stephen Fishman, J.D. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 2011.
  • Getting Permission: How to License and Clear Copyrighted Materials Online and Off, 5th ed. by Richard Stim. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 2013.
  • The Copyright Guide: A Friendly Handbook to Protecting and Profiting from Copyrights, 3rd ed. by Lee Wilson. New York: Allworth Press, 2003.

Recently, I had to withdraw an essay from an anthology when the publisher sent what was to me an unacceptable contributor's agreement. The best piece of advice I got from a fellow writer during this was that if I was not comfortable with the contract, I shouldn't sign it. It was disappointing, but I decided to walk away.

Another writer might make a different decision. That's OK. The important thing is to know what you are signing away when you make that agreement. 

Disclaimer: This is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.


  1. Timely. I just started working with an agent to find a publisher for audio rights.

  2. Most journals and anthologies that published poetry, at least the ones I submit to, ask for first time rights and specifically say that once published, the rights go back to the poet. I did not send to one government publication because their rights statement said the rights were retained by the government if something I wrote was accepted and printed. The editor later told me that was just boilerplate stuff, but I wasn't about to get into a legal battle with lawyers. They have exclusive rights to all the laws, and that's not fair. ;-)

    1. I think for some of them, they may just nod their heads when an over-zealous lawyer hands them that kind of thing, not realizing how unreasonable it is and that it shouldn't just be "boilerplate." With a contract, language matters, not the intent. They might not intend to take your rights, but if that's what the language says, that's what they do.

    2. And if you go by the editor's comment and send it elsewhere to be published, then you've got two publishers' lawyers at your doorstep.

    3. It's a bad day when lawyers are involved, Art. Most definitely a bad day.

  3. Great information!! Thanks!


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